Axiom Space has announced that as early as next year, a private crew, led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría could make history by becoming members of the first commercial crew to visit the International Space Station (ISS).
Joining López-Alegría are real estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor Mark Pathy and former Israeli Air Force pilot and philanthropist, Eytan Stibbe.
López-Alegría, who now works for Axiom, heads the Ax-1 mission as Commander, while Connor will be the mission’s pilot, making him the first private pilot on an orbital spaceflight. Both Pathy and Stibbe have been assigned as mission specialists.
The team are expected to stay at the ISS for eight days and will use SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience” for the mission.
The trip, slated to launch no earlier than January 2022, is estimated to cost $55 million per person by industry sources. Axiom however have not disclosed the prices the three commercial astronauts paid to join the mission.
“Axiom provides missions to Earth’s orbit because the dawn of true private spaceflight is the next line of moments. Only into the expanse outside our atmosphere can the species step out of the cradle,” say Axiom in a statement Tuesday. “And it all begins with this multinational crew. This groundbreaking mission.”
As groundbreaking the mission might be, many have pointed out the apparent lack of diversity amongst the four selected crew members.
“These may be great people going to space; but an older, non-diverse, affluent crew will reinforce the narrative of space as a plaything for rich elites. This matters… Commercial space needs to be for all,” writes Eric Berger, Senior Space Editor at Art Technica, via Twitter.
Addressing the issue of why some might criticise private spaceflight as only for the ultra rich, Axiom’s VP López-Alegría said in an interview with CNBC; “It’s not a very democratic demographic right now because of the cost of the flights, but we fully anticipate that the costs will start coming down. At some point we’ll be able to offer these to the man-on-the-street. It’s going to be a while but that’s the goal, and you have to start somewhere.”
The crew are also keen to emphasise that as each member will be participating in various research and philanthropic projects during their stay aboard the ISS, their mission is one of work and not play and as such the trip does fall into the category of space tourism.
“We absolutely do not believe that we’re space tourists,” Connor told CNBC.
The Ax-1 crew has yet to begin its formal training, but the team have seen the spacecraft and tried on spacesuits at SpaceX’s headquarters in Los Angeles, Connor said.
Once training does get underway, Connor, who turns 71 this year, will receive additional guidance on the operations of the spacecraft to support López-Alegría, who has already flown to space in four previous NASA missions.
John Shoffner, a commercial astronaut from Tennessee, will train as a backup, while former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will back up López-Alegría.
“Not the first time I have backed up @CommanderMLA! The next best thing to flying in space is training for it! Looking forward to the commercial evolution @Axiom_Space,” Whitson recently Tweeted.
Ax-1 is the first of Axiom Space’s “precursor” private astronaut missions to the ISS – subject to approval from NASA and its international partners, say the Houston based firm.
Although Ax-1 is not yet an official mission, Axiom Space and NASA are working together on the final approvals of a formal Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA) to enable private astronaut missions.
Axiom, in conjunction with NASA, have already stated they would like to offer at least two private and public flights to the ISS each year and the Ax-1 mission is seen as an important first step in that direction.
“We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I’m glad to say we’ve done that with this group,” Axiom Space President & CEO Michael Suffredini said. “This is just the first of several Axiom Space crews whose private missions to the International Space Station will truly inaugurate an expansive future for humans in space – and make a meaningful difference in the world when they return home.”
The space start-up firm's ultimate aim however is build and launch its own space station which it would make available to the international community. Axiom has plans to first add modules to the current international space station, that upon its retirement would see Axiom's own segments set free to then orbit independently around Earth.