NASA and Axiom Space are honing-in on launch dates for the next two private astronaut missions to the International Space Station.
NASA and Axiom are now targeting no earlier than January for the company's third private astronaut mission, Ax-3, one of the space agency's social media accounts revealed on Twitter. Addressing the delay from a previously announced November 2023 launch date, a follow up statement clarified that "this timeframe allows for teams to collaborate on the integration of the mission's scientific research priorities that continue to expand on what we can learn in low Earth orbit to benefit humanity."
Just over an hour after the Ax-3 announcements, a NASA statement announced a similar mission order had been finalized for Ax-4, with a target launch no earlier than November next year. Both missions will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules on Falcon 9 rockets from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Ax-4 deal includes provisions for the crew's roughly two-week stay aboard the ISS, with a contingency supply to accommodate possible delays in their scheduled departure. The return of Axiom's first mission, Ax-1, was delayed several days due to weather conditions at the crew's splashdown site.
NASA and Axiom's agreements also arranges for the private astronauts to handle science investigation equipment, and stow experiments aboard their Dragon spacecraft for return, as needed by NASA.
Specific launch dates for Ax-3 and Ax-4 are still undetermined, and are largely dependent on other traffic at the space station. Private astronauts flying to space on Axiom's missions undergo training with NASA, SpaceX and other partners as is necessary in preparation for their flight. The crew for Ax-4 has yet to be selected by Axiom, or approved by NASA. Once Ax-4's primary crew is finalized, they are slated begin similar training.
Axiom is the first company to conduct privately-crewed missions to the ISS, and represents a shift in NASA's approach to low Earth orbit (LEO) research. "NASA has been directed to develop commercial platforms to sustain a continuous United States presence in low Earth orbit and to transition beyond International Space Station operations," NASA's director of commercial space, Phil McAlister said in the statement. "These private astronaut missions are helping to pave the way for that transition."
Echoing the same, Axiom president and CEO Michael Suffredini said that each of these missions will help Axiom Space prepare their teams for a private orbital station to follow the International Space Station after its retirement.
"These missions are instrumental in expanding commercial space activities and access to space for individuals and nations around the world, as well as developing the knowledge and experience needed to normalize living and working in microgravity," Suffredini said.
Axiom Space's first mission, Ax-1, launched on April 8, 2022 carrying the first all-private crew to the International Space Station. Ax-2 followed just over a year later in May 2023.