Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

Lopez-Alegria presented each of his crewmates with a pin specially designed by the Association of Space Explorers for suborbital and orbital spacefliers of all stripes. He said the three civilian astronauts were gob-smacked by their first taste of space travel.

“One by one I could hear ’em say ‘expletive deleted’ as soon as they looked out the window — literally, every single one of them. I just smiled a little bit, and then when I got my turn to look at it, same expletive,” Lopez-Alegria said. “It’s just an amazing experience.”

Connor, a 72-year-old Ohio real estate investor and private pilot who’s the designated pilot for the Ax-1 space mission, said the coming week on the space station will be more than a joyride. “We’re here to experience this,” he said. “but we understand there’s a responsibility, and the responsibility is for this first civilian crew to get it right.”

Connor, Pathe and Stibbe have each paid $55 million for the 10-day trip to orbit, including eight days on the space station. During that time, they’ll be participating in a series of experiments and outreach activities. Connor, for example, will be providing data on space travel’s effect on senescent cells that are linked to age-related diseases.

Pathe, who hails from Montreal, will be conducting an in-space demonstration of two-way holoportation — a mixed-reality app that projects two-way, 3-D imagery using special lenses. The technology is being pioneered by Microsoft, Leap Biosystems and Aexa Aerospace.

“Images from Mission Control on Earth will be sent up to space, and Mark will see them as though they’re in space with him on board the International Space Station,” Leap Biosystems CEO Dave Williams, a former Canadian astronaut, told CBC. “More importantly, images from the space station will be sent down to Mission Control, so that it’ll look like Mark is, in fact, in Mission Control with the team on the ground.”

Stibbe, the first Israeli to visit the space station, will participate in research initiatives and outreach activities on behalf of the Ramon Foundation for the Israel Space Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology. One of his experiments is designed to demonstrate how liquid polymers could be used to produce bigger mirrors for future space telescopes.

Axiom Space said it’s setting up an NFT marketplace featuring digital artwork associated with the Ax-1 mission — starting with a $20 Axiom Space Patch. But at a post-launch news briefing, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini acknowledged there’s a limit to how much commercial activity can be conducted on the space station.

“We as a company, of course, would like to do sponsorship activities where you promote a vendor. … Well, that’s very hard to do in, I’ll call it a government facility,” Suffredini said. “There’s rules against that because that asset is really owned by the government, which means everybody helped pay for it, and you can’t really show favoritism that way. So that’s one of the things we had to work through very carefully.”

Axiom Space may push the envelope in future trips to the space station, which could feature work on a movie starring Tom Cruise, or the climactic episode of a space-themed reality-TV show. Axiom is also working with a London-based venture to build an orbital module that could serve as a film studio or zero-G arena.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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