A pioneering astronaut mission is on its way to the International Space Station.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched Ax-1, a mission from Houston-based company Axiom Space, today (April 8) at 11:17 am EDT (1517 GMT) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center here on Florida’s Space Coast.
None of Ax-1’s four crewmembers are government spaceflyers. It’s the first-ever fully private crewed mission to launch to the orbiting lab.
“Together, a new chapter begins,” Axiom Space’s Jon Rackham said during a webcast of the launch today. “Godspeed, Ax-1!”
With the picture-perfect liftoff, the crew officially began a 10-day journey that will include eight days aboard the International Space Station. Ax-1’s SpaceX Dragon capsule is set to dock with the orbiting lab around 7:45 am EDT (1145 GMT) tomorrow (April 9).
Ax-1 marked the fifth flight for this Falcon 9’s first stage. And the booster made its fifth landing as well, coming down for a pinpoint touchdown 9.5 minutes after liftoff on the SpaceX droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas, which was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s been a year and a half or so of very hard work since we’ve been designing the mission, essentially from scratch, doing something that’s never been done before in exactly this way,” Derek Hassmann, the operations director for Axiom Space, said during a pre-launch news conference yesterday (April 7). “It’s very rewarding.”
Ax-1 is commanded by retired NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who is now vice president of business development for Axiom. He launched today alongside mission pilot Larry Connor and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy.
Connor is a real estate entrepreneur and pilot familiar with 16 different aircraft; Pathy is the CEO and chair of the Canadian sustainable investment company MARVIK; and Stibbe is the founding partner of the Vital Capital Impact investment fund.
Stibbe was also a fighter pilot with the Israel Air Force (IAF) and will be the second Israeli person ever to reach space. The first, Ilan Ramon, was an astronaut who died during the space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003. In Ramon’s memory, Stibbe and the Ramon family co-founded the nonprofit Ramon Foundation.
Commander López-Alegría did not pay for his place aboard the mission and will help guide the other crew members through the voyage. Each of the three other crewmates is thought to have spent roughly $ 55 million on his seat.
Still, López-Alegría and other mission team members have stressed that the three paying customers are not “space tourists.”
Ax-1 “is too often called space tourism,” López-Alegría told Space.com during a conversation last year. “I would say it is not tourism at all.”
“This is real work that is requiring a lot of preparation, and I do not think it’ll be relaxing,” he added.
Other mission team members have echoed this sentiment.
“The crew is very well trained; they’ve spent many hundreds of hours prepping for this flight,” record-setting former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who is now Axiom Space’s director of human spaceflight, said during an April 1 pre-flight news conference.
The crew has a number of tasks planned for the mission, such as conducting 25 different scientific experiments. Among these experiments is a “brain headset” from Israeli startup Brain.Space that Stibbe is carrying with him. This experiment aims to observe how the brain behaves in space and is one of many investigations Stibbe is bringing on behalf of the Ramon Foundation.
The Ax-1 crew’s experiments will study other topics as well, including aging, stem cells, heart health and more, Hassmann shared yesterday.
“This really does represent the first step, where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low Earth orbit that aren’t members of a government are able to take this opportunity,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, said during the April 1 news conference.
Ax-1 is not just the first crewed launch for Axiom, or the first fully private crewed mission to the space station. For Axiom Space, it is the first major step towards realizing its own commercial space station in low Earth orbit (LEO), which is set to also be the first of its kind.
“The company was formed in order to build the next commercial space station,” Hassmann said during yesterday’s briefing. He added that Ax-1 is a precursor mission to building that station.
Axiom plans to “launch that first module of that commercial space station in late 2024. It will be connected to the ISS and will gradually build out that space station between that period for 2024 into 2030 with the goal of eventually separating and providing the commercial LEO destination of choice once ISS has been retired, “Hassman said.
“So this precursor mission is the first of several that will lead up to that 2024 module launch,” he added.
Ax-1 may be the first fully private crewed mission to the ISS, but it’s not the first all-civilian journey to orbit. That distinction goes to Inspiration4, a three-day, four-person mission that SpaceX launched in September 2021.
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