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Former astronaut Peggy Whitson will return to orbit in command of private Axiom Space mission

Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, shown here on the International Space Station during the Expedition 50 mission in 2016, will return to the station in command of the private Ax-2 mission by Axiom Space..
Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, shown here on the International Space Station during the Expedition 50 mission in 2016, will return to the station in command of the private Ax-2 mission by Axiom Space.. (Image credit: NASA)

Former astronaut Peggy Whitson, who set a number of records for women in space during her NASA career, will return to orbit as commander of a private mission to be launched by Axiom Space, the company announced today (May 25).

Whitson flew three long-duration missions to the International Space Station and was the first woman to command the station and serve as NASA's chief astronaut before she retired from the agency in 2018. During her NASA career, she set the current record for the most time in space by an American astronaut: 665 days.

As commander of the Axiom Space's proposed Ax-2 mission, the company's second private spaceflight, Whitson would add to her U.S. spaceflight career. She'll launch alongside John Shoffner, a pilot and champion racecar driver from Knoxville, Tennessee, Axiom representatives said in a statement. The two astronauts plan to conduct genomics experiments for the company 10x Genomics of Pleasanton, California, during their trip.

In Photos: The record-breaking career of NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson

"I’m thrilled to get to fly to space again and lead one of the first of these pioneering missions, marking a new era of human spaceflight," Whitson said in the statement. "But even more than that, I'm eager for the chance on Ax-2 to open space up to the first full generation of private astronauts and directly link John to the research opportunities on the ISS."

The mission would likely launch on either a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule or a Boeing Starliner capsule. SpaceX has flown three crewed flights to the station for NASA since 2020, with Boeing set to launch its next uncrewed Starliner test flight later this year. An Axiom Space trip with SpaceX could cost $55 million per person, according to The Verge.

Axiom's Ax-2 mission is intended to follow the company's first private spaceflight, called Ax-1, which is currently scheduled to launch in early 2022 on a SpaceX rocket and Dragon capsule. That 10-day mission will launch former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria; pilot Larry Connor, an American real estate and technology entrepreneur; entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot; and philanthropist Mark Pathy, a Canadian investor.

Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command Axiom Space's Ax-2 private spaceflight with John Shoffner as pilot. (Image credit: Axiom Space)

Whitson and Shoffner are currently training as backup to the Ax-1 crew as Axiom Space works to negotiate their flight with NASA. For the Ax-2 mission, the company must compete for a mission slot alongside other commercial companies as part of NASA's commercial opportunities program. The U.S. space agency expanded commercial access opportunities to the station in 2019.

According to NASA's current pricing policy, the baseline cost of a private visit on the space station is $5.2 million per person, with another $4.8 million for integration and basic services. Additional charges for food and other supplies could reach up to $167,500 per person per day.

"If awarded, Ax-2 will further the Houston-based space infrastructure leader’s expansion of the commercial human spaceflight market and cement the research opportunities it can make possible for private industry in low-Earth orbit," Axiom wrote in its statement today. 

While Axiom Space did not announce additional crewmembers for the Ax-2 mission, SpaceX's recent Crew Dragon flights for NASA and the Ax-1 mission each carried four-person team. Last week, the Discovery Channel announced that it would fly the winner of its new space reality contest series "Who Wants to Be An Astronaut" on the Ax-2 mission, so at least one seat will go to that winner.

For Shoffner, the flight will be one to remember. "Growing up, I closely followed every NASA flight of Gemini and Apollo," he said in the statement. "Now to experience astronaut training teamed with Peggy is an honor."

The Ax-1 and Ax-2 missions are part of a wider effort by the Houston-based Axiom Space to develop a commercial spaceflight business. The company hopes to launch private missions to the space station every six months, pending NASA approvals and if regular traffic to and from the station allows. 

Axiom Space is also developing plans for its own commercial space station and has secured an agreement with NASA to build a new private module for the International Space Station. 

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.