The second all-private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) continues to take shape.
Houston-based company Axiom Space is organizing that flight, a joint effort with SpaceX called Ax-2 that will send four people to the ISS for a roughly 10-day stay. The mission will build off the success of Axiom's groundbreaking Ax-1 mission, which launched and landed this past April.
Ax-2 will launch about a year after its predecessor, if all goes according to plan: In an update on Wednesday (Aug. 31), NASA announced that it and Axiom are targeting spring 2023 for the coming mission. The update also revealed that the two organizations have signed a "mission order" for Ax-2, nailing down some of the details of the flight.
Through the order, "Axiom is obtaining from NASA services such as crew supplies, cargo delivery to space, storage and other in-orbit resources for daily use. The order also accommodates up to an additional contingency week aboard the space station," NASA officials wrote in the update (opens in new tab).
"The order also identifies capabilities NASA will obtain from Axiom, including the return of scientific samples that must be kept cold in transit back to Earth, the return of a Nitrogen/Oxygen Recharge System (NORS) tank, the capability for last-minute return of two cargo transfer bags and up to 10 hours of the private astronaut mission commander’s time during the docked mission to complete NASA science or perform tasks for NASA," agency officials added.
Ax-2's four astronauts will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and ride a Dragon capsule to and from the space station, as the Ax-1 crew did. Axiom has said the mission commander will be record-setting former NASA astronaut and current Axiom consultant Peggy Whitson, and that a second seat will be occupied by investor John Shoffner.
Axiom has not revealed the identities of the other two proposed crewmembers, who presumably will be paying customers like Shoffner. And "proposed" is a necessary qualifier here; NASA and the other ISS partners have not yet officially approved the Ax-2 crewmembers. That should happen relatively soon, however; Ax-2 crew training is expected to begin this fall, NASA officials said in the update.
NASA currently requires that all private crewed missions to the ISS be commanded by a former agency astronaut. Ax-1 checked that box as well; it was led by Michael López-Alegría, who flew on three space shuttle missions and one ISS expedition while a member of the NASA astronaut corps.
The Axiom missions are part of SpaceX's expanding portfolio of crewed flights. Elon Musk's company also holds a NASA deal to fly agency astronauts to and from the orbiting lab. SpaceX plans to launch the fifth operational mission under this NASA contract, known as Crew-5, in early October.
And there will be more where that came from: Also on Wednesday, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX $1.4 billion to conduct five additional astronaut missions to the orbiting lab, taking the company's commitment all the way out to the Crew-14 mission.
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).