First all-private mission to ISS approaches

Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the trip for well-heeled businessmen, points to long-term significance

The first all-private mission to the International Space Station is on schedule to commence on April 6, organizers said today, and the four members of the Ax-1 mission have lofty goals for their time aboard the station.

“This is opening a new era in human spaceflight,” said Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut who will lead the mission for Axiom Space, the Houston company that wants to expand human commerce and settlements into Earth orbit. “We are taking the first step in a next-generation initiative that’s going to bring working, living and researching in space to a much broader and more international audience.”

López-Alegría will be joined by three businessmen who each paid Axiom $55 million for their 10 days in space: Larry Connor from Ohio, Mark Pathy of Montreal and Eytan Stibbe of Israel. They are scheduled to lift off at 12:05 p.m. Eastern U.S. time on Wednesday from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, inside a Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9.

The mission will be a “precursor” to Axiom’s planned construction of a privately owned space station, said Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s CEO and a former NASA space station manager in Houston during some of the program’s critical assembly years.

Plans call for eight days of research aboard the station comprised of 25 different experiments including space health research and microgravity science, and video interactions with students on Earth.

The trip to the station and back each will take a day. During those segments, Connor, who has flown as a pilot, is the designated pilot should it become necessary to take over or resolve an issue during what should be an automated ride to the station and home in the Dragon Endeavour capsule, which previously carried two astronauts to the space station for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission in 2020 and the SpaceX Crew-2 mission last year. 

Connor emphasized the training all four men have completed. “In our case, depending upon our role, we’ve spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours training,” he said. “We’re going to do some 25 different experiments, encompassing over 100 hours of research.”

Axiom arranged the flight with SpaceX and with NASA, which was paid or otherwise compensated for the usage of the space station.

Stibbe said he’ll be carrying pages from a diary written by deceased Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished when the Columbia shuttle orbiter broke apart in 2003 on its way back to Earth. 

“Somehow, pages from the diary survived the crash,” Stibbe said. “He was a good friend, who was my commander, and I had the opportunity to visit him during his training at Johnson Space Center, the same place where we have trained.” 

Stibbe said he plans to conduct experiments for Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs coordinated by the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency. One of those experiments will be a continuation of research into observations of thunderstorms from space that Ramon conducted on the STS-107 mission that ended in disaster.

Axiom wants to catalyze private sector activity in space, and Suffredini compared the role to those who pioneered online commerce and communications during the early days of the internet.

“The whole idea of these missions was to give individuals, countries and companies opportunities to be able to utilize ISS and ultimately do more and more in space,” he said.

Ax-1 will be the sixth time SpaceX’s Dragon design will carry people in space. Between them, the Endeavour and other two capsules — named Endurance and Resilience — have ferried four astronaut crews and the all-private Inspiration-4 flight by SpaceX. For Inspiration-4, the Resilience capsule gave participants stunning views of Earth for three days, but without docking at the space station.

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Human Spaceflight
A spacecraft is floating in outer space with the vast blackness of space in the background and the edge of a planet visible at the bottom right.
Four astronauts in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft approach the International Space Station last April for a six-month stay. Credit: NASA

First all-private mission to ISS approaches