Axiom Space will launch two private astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS) this year, if all goes according to plan.
The Houston-based company is currently gearing up for a flight called Ax-2, which is scheduled to send four people to the orbiting lab aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule next month. And on Tuesday (March 14), NASA announced that it had signed a mission order with Axiom Space for Ax-3, which is targeted to lift off no earlier than November.
"Axiom Space's selection to lead the next private astronaut mission to the International Space Station enables us to continue expanding access to nations, academia, commercial entities and emerging industries to research, test and demonstrate new technologies in microgravity," Axiom Space CEO and President Michael Suffredini said in an update (opens in new tab) released by NASA on Tuesday.
"As NASA's focus shifts back to the moon and on to Mars, we are committed to transforming low Earth orbit into a global space marketplace, where access to space moves beyond the partners of the space station to nations, institutions and individuals with new ideas fueling a thriving human economy beyond Earth," he added.
Related: Photos of the Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station
Ax-3 is scheduled to spend two weeks at the space station, though the recently signed mission order accommodates an extra week there if need be.
Such contingency time came into play on the pioneering Ax-1, which sent four people to the orbiting lab for a planned 10-day stay in April 2022. But bad weather persisted over the mission's splashdown zone, keeping Ax-1's Dragon docked to the ISS for six additional days.
NASA requires that all private crewed missions to the ISS be commanded by a former agency astronaut. Ax-1, for example, was led by Michael López-Alegría, who racked up four spaceflights with NASA. And Ax-2 will be commanded by Peggy Whitson, who has spent an American-record 665 days in space.
We don't yet know who will lead Ax-3, or who its paying passengers will be.
"Axiom Space will submit four proposed crew members and two backup crew for the Ax-3 mission to the station's Multilateral Crew Operations Panel for review," NASA officials said in Tuesday's update. "Following review and approval from NASA and its international partners, the prime crew members for the mission will be named."
Ax-3 will continue a busy year of crewed spaceflight for SpaceX. On March 2, for example, Elon Musk's company launched Crew-6, its sixth operational astronaut mission to the ISS for NASA. Nine days later, the four spaceflyers of Crew-5 returned to Earth.
Ax-2 is targeted to lift off next month, and SpaceX aims to launch Polaris Dawn, a free-flying mission to orbit funded and commanded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, this summer. Crew-7 will fly not long after Polaris Dawn gets off the pad; that next astronaut mission for NASA is tentatively scheduled for August.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).