For the first time, a commercial craft will bring a crew of civilians to the space station. It’s a harbinger of space tourism’s future—and its inequities.
IN ANOTHER MILESTONE for commercial spaceflight, the world’s first fully privately-funded crew to the International Space Station is about to blast off, with their launch window opening on Friday. A habitat that traditionally hosts mostly space agency astronauts will now welcome four civilians arriving on a company-owned spacecraft.
On April 8 at 11:17 am Eastern time, the crew is slated to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Axiom Space’s 10-day mission, which will include eight days of living and working in orbit. They’ll travel to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour, lifted by a Falcon 9 rocket.
Axiom’s mission, known as Ax-1, is intended to help the Houston-based company learn the ropes before its planned ISS crew module, dubbed Axiom Hub One, launches in a few years. When the ISS retires, Axiom aims to separate the module, which can host as many as eight astronauts, so that it can become the world’s first free-flying commercial space station. “It became clear we need to practice this a little bit at a smaller scale before our module shows up and we need to house that many people,” says Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s president and CEO. “It also provides opportunities to satisfy some of the latent demand out there to fly to the ISS.”
This won’t be the first time a privately owned spacecraft has docked with the space station. Since 2020, SpaceX has ferried crews to the ISS—but so far all of them have been space agency astronauts. Meanwhile, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corp. all have contracts with NASA to make uncrewed supply deliveries to the ISS.
It won’t be the first time a space tourist has visited, either. Since American businessman Dennis Tito spent $20 million for a spot on the ISS in 2001, about a dozen others have followed—but they’ve had to get there on government-owned vehicles, mostly Soyuz spacecraft from Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.
But this will be the first time that civilian astronauts will show up at the space station in a privately owned craft. “This mission represents a significant milestone for NASA’s goals to build a robust commercial economy in low Earth orbit. It helps stimulate demand as part of NASA’s overall vision of long-term sustainable commercial presence in low Earth orbit with NASA astronauts able to work side by side with private and international astronauts,” said Angela Hart, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Program, speaking at a media teleconference on March 25.
Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and Axiom’s vice president of business development, will lead a crew of three businessmen. Larry Connor, an American real estate investor, will have the title of pilot. (The Dragon’s flight will actually be autonomous.) The other two are mission specialists on Ax-1: Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe, investors and philanthropists from Canada and Israel, respectively.
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