Axiom Space's first astronaut crew just got the green light from NASA and the other International Space Station (ISS) partners for a trip to the orbiting lab.
Axiom's first crewed mission to the ISS, known as Ax-1, is scheduled to launch on March 30 aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Ax-1 will be commanded by Axiom Space employee and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría and will also include three paying customers: real-estate entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe, each of whom reportedly paid $55 million for his seat.
The quartet has been training for their 10-day mission for about six months, and NASA and its ISS partners have now officially approved their visit to the orbiting outpost, agency officials announced on Wednesday (Feb. 2).
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"This represents another significant milestone in our efforts to create a low Earth orbit economy," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, said in a statement Wednesday. "I wish these Axiom crew members safe travels, and I hope they find their time in space productive and enjoyable."
Axiom Space was founded in 2016 and has been developing a strong relationship with NASA ever since. Under the leadership of co-founder and CEO Michael Suffredini, who served as NASA's ISS program manager from 2005 to 2015, the company is building orbital modules. Axiom Space's structures will initially attach to the ISS but detach before the orbiting lab is decommissioned, eventually becoming a private space station in low Earth orbit.
Axiom Space's first module is scheduled to fly sometime in late 2024, according to the website of the company, whose headquarters are located just a short distance away from NASA's Johnson Space Center.
But Axiom isn't just about building private space stations. The company has also organized multiple trips to the ISS for paying customers, who will fly via SpaceX Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets.
Ax-1 will use the Dragon named Endeavour, which will launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ax-1 crew will spend eight days aboard the ISS and 10 days in space overall, then splash down back on Earth near the Florida coast.
It's unclear at this point what exactly the four-person crew will do on the space station. But their flight program will likely involve research collaborations across numerous institutions, according to a November 2021 Axiom Space announcement. These include possible partnerships with the Mayo Clinic; Cleveland Clinic; the Montreal Children's Hospital; Canadian Research Universities; the Royal Canadian Geographical Society; the Israel-based Ramon Foundation and the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology.
The Ax-1 crewmembers have been training for their upcoming mission at NASA facilities like Johnson Space Center since August 2021, according to the agency.
"The crew also has been training with NASA's space station international partners at ESA (European Space Agency), as well as with launch contractor SpaceX at its facilities in Hawthorne, California, and at other locations in preparation for the mission," NASA officials wrote in Wednesday's statement.
There are already more Axiom Space missions on the horizon. On Dec. 13, for example, NASA officials announced that they had greenlit the company's second mission to the space station, Ax-2. This trip will be commanded by Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other American. Ax-2 is currently scheduled to launch sometime between fall 2022 and spring 2023.
NASA plans to continue its ongoing partnerships with space agencies across the world to support International Space Station operations until at least 2030, according to an announcement from Administrator Bill Nelson in late December 2021. But as NASA moves toward other high-ticket projects such as its Artemis moon program, it is supporting the development of private space stations to keep humanity's foothold in low Earth orbit.
"For more than 21 years, NASA has supported a continuous U.S. human presence in low Earth orbit aboard the space station. The agency's goal is to enable a strong, commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit with private industry where NASA is one of many customers," NASA officials wrote in Wednesday's update.
NASA's support of Axiom Space "will provide services the government needs at a lower cost, enabling the agency to focus on its Artemis missions to the moon in preparation for Mars while continuing to use low Earth orbit as a training and proving ground for those deep space missions," agency officials added.