The first fully private astronaut mission to the International Space Station is on the books.
ONE SpaceX Dragon capsule transporting the four crew members of the ax-1 The mission crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida today (April 25) at 1:06 pm EDT (1706 GMT), ending the groundbreaking 17-day flight.
“On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome back to planet Earth,” a SpaceX mission communicator told the Ax-1 crew shortly after the dive.
Live updates: Ax-1 private mission to the space station
Related: Axiom Space: Building the economy off Earth
Ax-1 was organized by the Houston company axiom space and led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who is now vice president of business development at Axiom. He was joined on the mission by three paying customers – American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe, each of whom reportedly paid around $55 million for his seat.
Stibbe is the second Israeli to reach space. He was friends with the first – Ilan Ramon, who died along with his six crewmates on the space shuttle columbia disaster on February 1, 2003.
Paying customers visited the International Space Station (ISS) before; in fact, Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa and video producer Yozo Hirano lived aboard the orbiting lab for 11 days just last december. But these earlier flights were always commanded by a government astronaut — that is, a cosmonaut employed by Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos. The Ax-1 coordinated with NASA and ISS officials, but its crew were all private civilians.
You can also call astronauts Ax-1 space touristsbut they would dispute this characterization.
Ax-1 is “like a NASA mission to the ISS, and by no means what I equate to a leisurely tourist adventure”. López-Alegría told Space.com during a conversation last year, citing the extensive preparation required and the scientific work the crew would be doing in orbit. “It’s much more than that.”
Ax-1 isn’t the first private manned orbital mission of any kind, by the way. This distinction goes to inspiration4another SpaceX flight that spent nearly three days circling the Earth last September.
Photos: The first space tourists
a lot of science work
Ax-1 took off on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on april 8 and docked at the ISS a day later.
While living in the orbiting laboratory, private astronauts conducted more than 25 scientific experiments in a variety of fields, from human health and medicine to Earth observation and physical sciences.
For example, Connor investigated the relationship between heart health and senescent cells (cells that have stopped dividing). And researchers will study pre- and post-flight magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images of it to gain a better understanding of how space missions affect the brain and spinal tissue. Connor is working on these projects with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, contributing to lines of research that he has helped fund over the past decade.
Among Pathy’s projects were Earth observation work designed to shed light on the impacts of of Climate Change and urbanization, as well as research on sleep disorders and chronic pain for the Children’s Hospital of Montreal.
Stibbe worked with the Ramon Foundation, a nonprofit named after his friend, and the Israel Space Agency on a variety of investigations.
“The experiments are innovative and pioneering, stemming from diverse disciplines – astrophysics, agriculture, optics, communication, biology, health, neurology and ophthalmology – and were chosen based on their potential impact on research and innovative approach,” said Inbal Kreiss, chairman of the science and technology committee and head of missile systems innovation and space group at Israel Aerospace Industries, the country’s state-owned aerospace company, said in a Axiom Space statement late last year.
The Ax-1 crew members ended up having substantially more time to perform these experiments than they initially thought. The mission was supposed to leave the ISS on April 19 and return to Earth a day later, but bad weather boiled over in the splash zone off the coast of Florida and persisted. delaying the dragon’s departure until Sunday night (April 24).
And, in case you’re wondering: Axiom Space didn’t have to pay for the extra five days aboard the orbiting lab.
The contract that Axiom signed with NASA “includes a fair balance to cover the Ax-1 for a sufficient number of contingency days,” Gary Jordan, a NASA public affairs officer, told Space.com via email.
“Knowing that the mission objectives of the International Space Station such as the recently carried out russian spacewalk or weather challenges could result in a delayed de-docking, NASA negotiated the contract with a strategy that does not require reimbursement for additional de-docking delays,” he added.
The delay affected another astronaut mission, however – SpaceX Crew-4, which will send three NASA astronauts and one European Space Agency astronaut to the ISS for an extended stay. Crew-4 was supposed to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida over the weekend, but that lift-off will now take place no earlier than Wednesday (April 27); NASA officials said they want about two days between the Ax-1 crash and the Crew-4 launch to allow for data analysis and other preparations.
just the beginning
Ax-1 will just be the beginning of Axiom Space, if all goes according to plan. The company has reserved several additional missions for the orbiting laboratory, which will all be piloted by SpaceX.
The next, Ax-2, is scheduled to launch later this year and will be commanded by the former NASA astronaut. Peggy Whitson, who has spent more time in space than any other American. Like López-Alegría, she now works for Axiom, serving as the company’s director of human spaceflight.
But Axiom still has bigger plans. Starting in late 2024, the company plans to launch a series of modules for the ISS. These connected modules will eventually detach and fly freely, becoming the first privately operated space station in Earth orbit. Axiom believes there will be high demand for this trading outpost and that it could end up boosting an off-Earth manufacturing economy.
“On the ISS, a company could only do one experiment; even if the experiment was successful, there was no place for that company to do the product at scale,” said Matt Ondler, chief technology officer at Axiom Space. told Space.com late last year. “A commercial space station like the Axiom one will provide that opportunity and so I believe we will see all kinds of ideas and products that we cannot imagine today.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or in Facebook.