First private mission reaches International Space Station

Published April 9, 2022
A rocket of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Friday.—AFP/File
A rocket of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Friday.—AFP/File

The first fully private mission reached the International Space Station early on Saturday with a four-member crew from startup company Axiom Space.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has hailed the three-way partnership with Axiom and SpaceX as a key step towards commercialising the region of space known as “Low Earth Orbit,” leaving the agency to focus on more ambitious voyages deeper into the cosmos.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavor docked at 1229 GMT on Saturday and the crew entered the space station nearly two hours later, after launching from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Friday.

Commanding the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) is former Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a dual citizen of the US and Spain, who flew to space four times over his 20-year-career, and last visited the International Space Station (ISS) in 2007.

He is joined by three paying crewmates: American real estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy and Israeli former fighter pilot, investor and philanthropist Eytan Stibbe.

“We're here to experience this but we understand there's a responsibility,” Connor said in comments shown on Nasa's live feed.

As the first civilian crew, he said, they “need to get it right.”

The widely reported price for tickets — which includes eight days on the outpost, before eventual splashdown in the Atlantic — is $55 million.

While wealthy private citizens have visited the ISS before, Ax-1 is the first mission featuring an all-private crew flying a private spacecraft to the outpost.

Houston-based Axiom pays SpaceX for transportation, and Nasa also charges Axiom for use of the ISS.

Research projects

On board the ISS, which orbits 250 miles (400 kilometres) above sea level, the quartet will carry out 25 research projects, including an MIT technology demonstration of smart tiles that form a robotic swarm and self-assemble into space architecture.

Another experiment involves using cancer stem cells to grow mini tumors, and then leveraging the accelerated ageing environment of microgravity to identify biomarkers for early detection of cancers.

“Our guys aren't going up there and floating around for eight days taking pictures and looking out of the cupola,” Derek Hassmann, operations director of Axiom Space, told reporters at a pre-launch briefing.

In addition, crewmember Stibbe plans to pay tribute to his late friend Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the spaceship disintegrated upon reentry.

Surviving pages from Ramon's space diary, as well as mementos from his children, will be brought to the station by Stibbe.

The Axiom crew will live and work alongside the station's regular crew: currently three Americans and a German on the US side, and three Russians on the Russian side.

The company has partnered for a total of four missions with SpaceX, and Nasa has already approved in principle the second, Ax-2.

Axiom sees the voyages as the first steps of a grander goal: to build its own private space station. The first module is due to launch in 2024.

The plan is for the station to initially be attached to the ISS, before eventually flying autonomously when the latter retires and is deorbited sometime after 2030.

Opinion

Editorial

Wayward ideology
02 Dec, 2022

Wayward ideology

Anyone who claims his legacy for themselves should not treat his words so whimsically.
Progressive stance
02 Dec, 2022

Progressive stance

THE timing of two encouraging developments in the fight against domestic violence in Pakistan could not have been...
China Covid protests
02 Dec, 2022

China Covid protests

PUBLIC protests are rare in China where the People’s Republic maintains order through a strict authoritarian code...
Punjab crisis
01 Dec, 2022

Punjab crisis

ADMINISTRATIVE chaos has ruled Punjab ever since the ouster of the PTI government in April, deepening the...
Quetta attack
01 Dec, 2022

Quetta attack

It would be foolishness of the highest order were the authorities to ignore the emerging threat.
World AIDS Day
01 Dec, 2022

World AIDS Day

AS countries mark World AIDS Day on Dec 1, a timely report from Unicef has renewed concerns about the severe...