Watch Live: Launch of the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station
ORLANDO, Fla., April 8 (UPI) — With its 13th launch of the year on Friday, SpaceX will make history by sending the first private crew of astronauts to the International Space Station for a week to conduct dozens of science experiments.
Ax-1, Axiom Space’s first mission to the ISS, is scheduled to lift off at 11:17 a.m. EDT on a previously piloted Falcon 9 rocket that will fly from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission is the first-ever flight of private citizens to the orbital outpost in a commercial vehicle. Lasting 10 days, the mission will see the crew spend eight days aboard the laboratory in orbit, living and working on the station alongside the current crew.
Ax-1’s passengers are retired NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría; Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur; Mark Pathy, a Canadian businessman; and Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli entrepreneur and former fighter pilot.
“This mission ushers in a new era in human spaceflight,” Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini told UPI in an interview.
“It really represents the first step, where a group of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low Earth orbit who are not members of a government can take this opportunity,” Suffredini said.
The crew of Ax-1 pilots a refurbished Crew Dragon capsule, named Endeavour, which was used to carry SpaceX’s first crew of two astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behenken – into space in May 2020. The flight will mark the craft’s third trip. at the ISS.
After liftoff, the Dragon Endeavor will take just under 24 hours to arrive at the ISS. Axiom said it may host an in-flight event during the trip, noting they may not be able to check in with the crew until around 5:30 a.m. EDT.
After arriving at the ISS around 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday, the crew will spend 8 days conducting more than 30 research experiments. The return trip to Earth will also take around 24 hours, with the crew crashing off the coast of Florida next week.
The American Space Force said Thursday there is 90% cooperating weather. If the mission cannot take off, backup attempts are possible on Saturday and Sunday. After that, however, it gets tricky.
That’s because NASA’s next mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System, is sitting on an adjacent launch pad, waiting to complete a series of pre-launch tests. Known as a wet dress rehearsal, a test of the vehicle and equipment on the ground that includes refueling the rocket.
SLS began the testing phase on April 3, but a series of delays — and the need to launch the Axiom mission — forced NASA to pull out. Engineers plan to resume testing on Monday, April 11, assuming Axiom has launched.
Axiom must also take off and return before the Crew-4 mission can take off for the station on April 20 due to docking limits on the ISS.
The Ax-1 crew was quarantined for several days, including during a launch rehearsal on Wednesday, while the rocket and its systems also underwent pre-launch testing.
SpaceX, NASA and Axiom said Thursday that the mission has officially launched.
The crew stressed that they are not space tourists, but trained the same way as NASA astronauts and spent eight days with as much science as possible.
“It has been a real privilege to work and train alongside these three remarkable gentlemen,” López-Alegría said earlier this week at a press conference. “We spent countless hours in simulations, technical training and hands-on training and they brought incredible commitment, discipline and a desire to learn to the effort.
“I can say without hesitation that we are ready to fly,” he added.
Ride with science
López-Alegría is Vice President of Business Development at Axiom. The remaining three passengers have paid a total of $55 million for their seats and are carrying more than 30 research projects to conduct in orbit.
Among the experiments is a brain “helmet” from an Israeli startup that Stibbe will take with him as part of a series of Ramon Foundation experiments.
Stibbe, who is the second Israeli astronaut to reach space, helped establish the foundation in honor of his friend and compatriot, Ilan Ramon.
Ramon was the first Israeli to fly in space, participating in a space shuttle mission in 2003 aboard Columbia. He and his crew were lost when the shuttle broke up during reentry.
“Being part of this crew is proof from me that there is no dream out of reach,” Stibbe said at the pre-launch press conference.
“I think I speak for all of us that we understand this first civilian mission is a great honor and a great opportunity,” Connor said. “But with that comes a great responsibility, which is to execute the mission properly and successfully.”
Other science and technology flying with the helmet include a host of health-related investigations studying the effects of spaceflight on the human body.
On behalf of the Mayo Clinic, Connor is working on a project involving senescent heart cells, which are heart cells that have stopped dividing and are linked to age-related diseases. The researchers expect the data to shed light on the impact of space travel on these cell types, as well as overall heart health.
Pathy will conduct experiments focusing on chronic pain and sleep disorders during space travel. The microgravity environment, along with radiation exposure and isolation, is thought to amplify these symptoms.
He will also lead Earth observation activities aimed at improving the analysis of the impacts of climate change, urbanization and other human factors on ecology and human habitation in North America.
Not the last
If all goes according to plan, the mission will be the first of many, as NASA is already working with Axiom to finalize a second private astronaut mission sometime next year.
This mission, called Ax-2, will be led by another retired NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson.
Whitson has flown in space three times, and in April 2017 set a since-broken NASA record for the longest time in space by an astronaut. She is now responsible for manned spaceflight at Axiom.
“It’s so exciting. Personally, for me, it’s a dream come true,” Whitson said at a press conference. “When I retired from NASA I wasn’t sure this commercial industry was going to take off as fast as it has and I’m so thrilled [for this crew] and I’m so excited to be going back.”