On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers set off on a trip to the International Space Station.
The mission is the first to go to the space station where all the passengers are private citizens, and it is the first time that NASA has cooperated in arranging a space tourism visit. NASA officials said the flight represented a pivotal moment in efforts to stimulate space travel by commercial companies.
Dana Weigl, deputy program manager for the space station at NASA, said during a press conference after the launch.
But the mission also highlighted that most customers on trips to orbit will be very wealthy in the near term. Axiom Space of Houston acted as the tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days aboard the station, for $55 million each. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide the transportation – a Falcon 9 rocket with Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that takes NASA astronauts to and from the station.
At 11:17 a.m. ET, the mission, called Axiom-1, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida into clear blue skies after a smooth countdown.
“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule detached from the rocket’s second stage. “Thank you for flying Falcon 9. You guys are enjoying your flight to that amazing space station in the sky.”
Clients on the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, managing partner of The Connor Group, a company in Dayton, Ohio, that owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Bathy, CEO of Mavrik, a Canadian investment firm; and Eitan Stipe, an investor and former pilot in the Israeli Air Force.
Michael Lopez Allegria, a former NASA astronaut who is now Axiom’s vice president and commander of the Ax-1 mission, will lead them to the space station.
“What a ride!” Mr. Lopez Allegria reported via Twitter from Orbit.
It is scheduled to dock at the space station early Saturday.
Although the Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA had almost no role in the launch or orbital flight. Agency officials were happy about this because they are looking to a future where they can simply purchase services such as a room on a space station from commercial vendors.
The International Space Station, which is about a football field long, is a technological marvel, but it costs NASA about US$1.3 billion to operate. Although NASA wants to extend the life of the current station until 2030, it hopes that the least expensive commercial space stations will be in orbit by then.
For NASA, that means learning how to collaborate with private institutions in orbit including hosting space tourists, while Axiom and other companies have to figure out how to build profitable businesses off the planet.
Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station, and then has an agreement with NASA to attach several units it’s building to the space station. When the ISS finally retires, these modules must be separated to form the core of the Axiom Station.
“This is really the first mission in our effort to build a commercial space station,” said Michael T. Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom who previously worked at NASA to manage the International Space Station.
Space tourism has skyrocketed last year. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has begun taking fee-paying customers on short, suborbital flights to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic took its founder, Richard Branson, on a short trip and began selling tickets for future flights.
In September, the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isakman was the first flight into orbit in which none of the passengers was a professional astronaut. For this mission, called Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give chances to three people who weren’t able to afford the trip themselves. That flight did not go to the space station, and the four spent three days floating in orbit before returning to Earth.
By contrast, each axiom space traveler pushes his or her own way, and the experience varies. Earlier, private travelers to the space station – most recently Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezua – flew on Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian cosmonauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX take charge of the mission from launch to entering the capsule near the space station.
During a press conference last month, Connor objected to being called a space tourist.
“Space tourists,” he said, “will spend 10 or 15 hours training, 5 to 10 minutes in space.” “And by the way, that’s fine. In our case, depending on our role, we spent 750 to over 1,000 hours training.”
At least in theory, this is the future that NASA has been working toward for decades.
In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law that created NASA was amended to encourage extraterrestrial private enterprise. But plans to privatize the operation of NASA’s space shuttles were put on hold after the loss of the Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the waning communism years that preceded NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, American entrepreneur Dennis Tito was the first tourist hosted by Russia in 2001. Russia stopped receiving private travelers after 2009; With the imminent retirement of the space shuttles, NASA needed to purchase available seats on the Russian rockets so astronauts could get to them and from the space station.
In the past few years, NASA has opened up about the idea of space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, Administrator of NASA during the Trump AdministrationHe often talked about NASA being one customer out of many and how that would significantly reduce costs for NASA.
But for NASA to be one customer for many, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing may eventually pay off.
At the moment, the most promising market is the wealthy who pay to visit the space themselves.
While Axiom Space now declines to comment when asked about the cost of getting people to the International Space Station, the company offered a ticket price a few years ago: $55 million per passenger.
Much of the price is tied to the rockets and spacecraft needed to reach orbit. Once there, customers also have to pay for accommodations and utilities.
in 2019, NASA has prepared a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it will charge companies like Axiom Space $35,000 per night per person for use of sleeping accommodations and amenities, including air, water, Internet and a toilet. Last year, NASA said it raised prices for future flights to the station.
In some areas, the Axiom-1 crew members have undergone much of the same training as NASA astronauts, particularly regarding safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Mrs. Weigel gave the toilet as an example. They needed to know how the space station toilets worked, but, as guests, they didn’t need to be trained on how to fix a toilet if it broke down.
Upon their ascent to the space station, Axiom visitors will receive guidance on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “This actually looks very similar to what our crews do for the first day and a half,” Ms Weigel said.
Then, the Axiom astronauts will blast off and do their own activities, which include 25 science experiments they plan to conduct during the eight days on the space station. Trials include planned medical work with organizations such as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Montreal Children’s Hospital. Axiom astronauts will also conduct some tech demonstrations such as self-assembled robots that can be used to build future spacecraft in space.
Axiom’s visitor activities are coordinated with those of other crew members on the space station so that people are not trying to use the same facility at the same time.
It’s more than 1,000 pieces of a puzzle, said Mrs. Weigl, “I’ll put it this way, to fit it all together.”
With a larger than usual number of people residing in the US part, some sleeping quarters are temporary in different parts of the station. Ms. Weigel said only one person would sleep in the Crew Dragon.
But Axiom passengers said they would be careful not to get in the way of other crew members.
“We are well aware that we will be guests on board the International Space Station,” Mr. Lopez Allegria said last month.