A 'beautiful, beautiful launch:' Teams celebrate private Ax-1 mission's landmark liftoff

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Four private astronauts left Earth this morning (April 8), riding a SpaceX capsule toward the International Space Station on a history-making liftoff that wowed observers.

"Wow! It was a beautiful, beautiful launch," Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said during a post-launch news conference today. "It never gets old."

Today at 11:17 a.m. EDT (1517 GMT), a retired NASA astronaut and three spaceflyers who paid for their seats launched on a historic journey to the International Space Station (ISS) from Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. 

The mission, called Ax-1, is the first crewed launch organized by Texas-based aerospace company Axiom Space as well as the first fully private crewed mission to the space station in history. 

The mission is commanded by Michael López-Alegría, an Axiom employee who's a former NASA astronaut and former ISS commander. His Ax-1 crewmates are mission pilot Larry Connor and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy. 

Live updates: Ax-1 private mission to space station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the crewed Ax-1 mission toward the International Space Station on April 8, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX via Twitter)

After the successful launch this morning, the crew is now safely on their way to the station. Following the launch, the crewmembers have "taken their suits off and they're starting their first meal," Benjamin Reed, the senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, revealed during the post-launch news conference, adding that the astronauts are "healthy and well."

Reed added that the SpaceX Dragon capsule they are flying is "healthy" and "looks great." 

The Ax-1 crew is set to dock with the space station at about 7:45 a.m. EDT (1145 GMT) tomorrow morning (April 9). After docking, the hatch between the Dragon capsule and the station will open at around 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT). 

You can follow along with docking activities with a live webcast beginning tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. EDT (0930 GMT), which you can find here at Space.com or directly via Axiom Space.

Once the hatch opens between the capsule and the station, the Ax-1 crew will be greeted by the astronauts already living and working aboard the space station. The station crew will also perform a welcome ceremony, as is tradition, with the newcomers.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson watching the launch of the Ax-1 mission. (Image credit: NASA)

Ax-1 is a 10-day mission, which will include roughly eight days aboard the space station. 

López-Alegría did not have to pay for his place on the flight, as he helps and guides the three other crewmembers through the mission. Connor, Stibbe and Pathy are paying passengers and are thought to have paid about $55 million apiece for their seats.

"I know the world is watching this historic event," Dana Weigel, the International Space Station deputy program manager for NASA, said during the news conference today. To make the most of this incredible endeavor, the crew will have a "packed schedule of mission objectives," she added. 

Those objectives include performing 25 science experiments and a number of commercial activities, as well as media outreach work that the crew has trained to carry out while in orbit. Some of the science experiments Ax-1 is carrying come with Stibbe on behalf of the Ramon Foundation, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with the family of Ilan Ramon, an astronaut and friend of Stibbe who died during the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy

Ramon was the first Israeli to reach space, and Stibbe just became the second. (Connor is American and Pathy is from Canada.)

Ax-1 will be followed by Axiom Space's second crewed mission to the station, Ax-2, which is set to launch in 2023. 

Ax-2 will be commanded by another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, who also commanded the space station and who broke a number of records during her time in space. Like López-Alegría, Whitson is an Axiom employee, serving as the company's director of human spaceflight. (López-Alegría is the vice president of business development.)

"We think it's critically important that there's always a professional astronaut flying to station," Michael Suffredini, the president and CEO of Axiom Space, told Space.com in the post-launch briefing. "Peggy and Mike of course have been to the ISS before and commanded it, so they're great for these first two missions."

"We do train crews as professional astronauts, so we do have the option to have the professional astronaut also be a paying customer. But for the first couple of flights or so, it'll be an Axiom astronaut who will have commanded the ISS, and we do think that's the right way to fly these flights," Suffredini added.

Mission team members have said, both before and after today's launch, that Ax-1 is Axiom's first major step toward its eventual goal of building the first fully commercial space station in orbit. The first module of this future free-flying station is set to launch to dock with the ISS in 2024.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.