Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends first all-private crew to space station

For the first time ever, a non-governmental spaceship is taking a fully non-governmental crew to the International Space Station.

Axiom Space’s quartet of spacefliers blasted into orbit at 11:17 a.m. ET (8:17 a.m. PT) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Zero-G and we feel fine,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the Ax-1 mission for Axiom. That comment echoed what space pioneer John Glenn said 60 years earlier when he became the first American in orbit.

The launch marked another milestone in the move toward privately supported space missions. It was the first mission flown under the provisions that NASA drew up three years ago for hosting private astronauts on the space station.

Three millionaire investors from three different countries — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe — paid fares estimated at $55 million to spend about 10 days in orbit. They’ll conduct more than two dozen science experiments and technology demonstrations, do some outreach activities, and spend leisure time enjoying the view and experiencing the zero-G environment.

NASA is charging Axiom about $10 million per day to support each spaceflier during their stay — but on the other side of the balance sheet, NASA is paying Axiom to bring samples back to Earth. The accounting is complex: Depending on which expenses and revenues you include, NASA could end up paying $1.69 million to Axiom Space.

Axiom is also paying fees to SpaceX, not only for the ride but for pre-flight training as well. The payoff came with today’s Falcon 9 launch, which went off without a hitch. This marked the fifth flight for the Falcon’s reusable first-stage booster, and the third flight for the Crew Dragon capsule, christened Endeavour.

After sending the Dragon to orbit, the booster made an at-sea landing on SpaceX’s newest drone ship, named “A Shortfall of Gravitas.”

“OK, SpaceX — this was one of the best-looking booster landings I have ever seen,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a tweet.

Zurbuchen wasn’t the only NASA official who was enthused about the mission’s successful start. “This is one of the things that we’ve been preparing for really hard,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during a post-launch news briefing.

Even though the space agency’s teams weren’t directly involved in the preparations for the launch, they worked closely with Axiom and SpaceX on plans for the crew’s rendezvous with the space station and other on-orbit activities.

“What a historic launch!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Thank you to the dedicated teams at NASA who have worked tirelessly to make this mission a reality. NASA’s partnership with industry through the commercial cargo and crew programs have led our nation to this new era in human spaceflight — one with limitless potential.”

The Crew Dragon is due to dock with the station at about 7:45 a.m. ET (4:45 a.m. PT) March 9, with video coverage on NASA TV.

Today’s trip builds on plenty of precedents — including the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station in 2001, the first privately funded suborbital spaceflight in 2004, SpaceX’s first crewed orbital flight in 2020 and the first “all-private” flight to orbit in 2021.

And although this is the first all-private trip to the space station, it’s not likely to be the last. Axiom Space is already making arrangements for another privately funded mission that’s due to take place in the 2022-2023 time frame. Lueders noted that NASA is geared up to accommodate two visits by private astronauts annually. One such mission may soon send action-movie actor Tom Cruise into orbit to film a movie, or serve as the reward for a reality-TV contest winner.

Axiom is also working on its own destination for space travelers: a habitation module that could be attached to the International Space Station as soon as 2024. It’s designed to break off and become part of a stand-alone commercial space station when the ISS is retired.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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