NASA and Texas-based company Axiom Space have agreed on terms for the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, which will launch as soon as January 2022.
The agreement, which was announced on Monday (May 10), includes only a portion of the assorted exchanges required to make a flight like this a reality, but it will result in a net payment from NASA to Axiom of $1.69 million. The agreement will allow Axiom to send a retired NASA astronaut and three passengers to the orbiting laboratory aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a journey of about a week in the first crewed space station mission for exclusively private interests.
"This truly is a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight, I think that's the perfect word for what we're experiencing," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said during a news conference held Monday. "History can feel incremental when you're in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point, I think, with human spaceflight."
The mission, dubbed Ax-1, marks a new milestone in NASA's continuing push to transition low Earth orbital activities to commercial entities: first by hiring companies to ferry supplies to the space station, then by hiring SpaceX and Boeing to build the crew vehicles that are just coming into operation, and now by opening the station itself to companies.
Until now, the handful of non-professional astronauts who have visited the space station have done so on missions that were otherwise focused on standard governmental priorities in orbit. On Ax-1, the passengers will be pursuing research and outreach projects independent of NASA's work during their time in orbit.
"We are excited to see more people have access to spaceflight through this first private astronaut mission to the space station," Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said in a statement. "One of our original goals with the Commercial Crew Program, and again with our Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program, is that our providers have customers other than NASA to grow a commercial economy in low Earth orbit."
The path to launch
Ax-1 is scheduled to blast off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center as soon as January 2022 for a flight of about 10 days total, about eight of which would be spent on the space station. The mission is the first crewed flight in NASA's effort to promote commercial development of low Earth orbit. The agency wants companies to take over this region of human spaceflight so that it can focus time and money on more distant destinations like the moon and Mars.
Retired NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, veteran of four spaceflights and vice president of Axiom Space, will lead the mission, seeing his first launch in more than a decade. Three paying passengers will join him: Larry Connor, an American real estate entrepreneur who will serve as pilot on the mission; Mark Pathy, a Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli businessman and fighter pilot.
How much each passenger has paid for the experience is not public knowledge. "We don't generally talk about the specific payments that our customers make," Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said during the news conference. "It's been widely reported as numbers in the tens of millions, which I wouldn't argue with, but we generally don't talk about the specific pricing."
The quartet will be the first fully private crew to visit the International Space Station; previous private spaceflyers have flown as a single individual accompanied by government astronauts conducting a routine mission. Axiom has chosen for each planned flight it arranges to be led by a retired astronaut to increase comfort with the arrangement, Suffredini said.
"The Ax-1 crew has its work cut out for it," López-Alegría said during the news conference. "We acknowledge the responsibility of setting the bar for future private missions and we embrace that challenge. Eytan, Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut. They're not interested in being tourists."
Axiom doesn't know yet which SpaceX vehicle its mission will launch on, Suffredini said. "It really depends on when the missions occur, so it's possible we could be on the Crew-2 vehicle but it really just depends on how things worked out going forward." (That capsule, dubbed Endeavour, is currently docked to the space station on its second crewed visit.)
Suffredini noted that Axiom's preparations are on track and the prelaunch plan includes padding should any delays arise along the way.
López-Alegría said that he and the rest of the crew will begin training activities later this month. In July, the full crew will visit the foothills of Alaska for team bonding, he added, then he and Connor will conduct a week of training with SpaceX regarding the Crew Dragon vehicle specifically. The crew will be focused on training full-time beginning in October, he added, for both the International Space Station and the Crew Dragon.
A bargain flight
The mission requires Axiom to secure a complicated arrangement of agreements with partners including SpaceX, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, and more. The newly announced agreement with NASA is only one piece of that puzzle.
The agreement covers items like food and water for the crewmembers, professional astronaut time to prepare the space station for the vehicle's visit, and other costs associated with visiting the space station, NASA and Axiom representatives said during the news conference. The full text of the agreement has not been made publicly available.
The costs incorporated into the agreement were determined in 2019, when NASA first announced it would be willing to welcome up to two private astronaut flights to the space station per year, each for up to 30 days. At the time, NASA officials estimated that a visit could cost around $35,000 per night.
Between that pricing scheme, the agreement not representing a comprehensive accounting of the mission costs, and NASA paying Axiom for stowage capacity on the flight back to Earth for science payloads that must remain cold, the new agreement will result in NASA paying Axiom a balance of $1.69 million.
However, Ax-1 will be the only mission to fly at such bargain rates. In late April, NASA updated its prices for space station visits, SpaceNews reported earlier this month. According to the publication's calculations, the cost increase is dramatic.
"Under the old policy, the life support and crew supplies for a hypothetical four-person, one-week mission to the ISS would cost $945,000, a figure that doesn’t include stowage, data or power," SpaceNews wrote. "Under the new policy, the cargo, food and supplies charges for the same mission would be more than $2.5 million at the low end of the quoted cost ranges, plus $10 million in per-mission fees."
That price change is due to Axiom and other similar companies wanting more visits to the space station than NASA can support, according to NASA officials.
"We are seeing a lot of interest in private astronaut missions," Angela Hart, manager of commercial low Earth orbit development at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during the news conference.
"At this point, the demand exceeds what we actually believe the opportunities on station will be," she said, specifying that the lack of balance between supply and demand was why the agency updated its procedure for visiting commercial missions, in order to make clear that time on the space station "is such a limited resource."
What's next for Axiom
Presumably, opportunities for private astronaut missions will be distributed among multiple companies. "We are not the only peas in the pod," Suffredini said.
However, Axiom does have three more missions in planning, Suffredini noted, and has its sights set on an ambitious flight schedule. "We would like to fly at a cadence [of] about roughly twice a year; it probably works out to once every seven months or so," he said, while emphasizing that Axiom's schedule will depend on those of SpaceX, Boeing and the space station itself.
Axiom has most recently been in the news for brokering a last-minute seat for NASA aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule that launched in April. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei occupied that seat, joining Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov; the trio are now a month into their stay in orbit. In exchange, NASA will fly an astronaut of Axiom's selection on a U.S. commercial vehicle in 2023.
Axiom also holds an agreement with NASA to send a habitable commercial module to dock with the International Space Station. The company plans to later separate that module, which will become the base of an independent space station fully operated by Axiom.
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