NASA, Axiom Space, SpaceX target spring 2023 trip to ISS

More private astronauts are headed to the International Space Station with a planned launch from the Kennedy Space Center next spring.

The agreement between NASA and Axiom Space paves the way for four space travelers to head to the ISS in a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch from KSC targeting liftoff between April-June 2023.

The Axiom Space 2 (Ax-2) crew have yet to be named, but NASA rules require one of them to be a former NASA astronaut acting as commander. Axiom Space had previously announced its intention for that person to be Peggy Whitson, the company’s Director of Human Space Flight, who previously served as chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office, and flew on several shuttle and Soyuz flights with nearly 666 days in space.

“We think it’s critically important that there’s always a professional astronaut flying to station,” said Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini ahead of the Ax-1 flight. “Peggy and [Ax-1 Commander Michael López-Alegría] of course have been the ISS before … We do think that’s the right way to fly these flights.”

The Ax-1 mission also flew this past April with three customers who paid the company $55 million each for the flight. Axiom Space pays SpaceX for the ride and NASA for the accommodations for its flights. Ax-2 is expected to be docked to the ISS for 10 days.

“With each new step forward, we are working together with commercial space companies and growing the economy in low-Earth orbit,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial space in a press release. “In addition to expanding access to orbit for more people, we are also hoping these private astronaut missions will help the industry learn and develop the skillset to conduct such missions.”

One of the potential civilians to fly could be race car driver and businessman John Schaffner, who had previously been announced as the pilot for the Ax-2 flight, although that role doesn’t demand too much from the mostly automated SpaceX Crew Dragon.

But Axiom Space first has to provide to NASA the names of its four planned passengers as well as four backup passengers, and when NASA approves, they’ll announce just who plans on making the trip. Training for the flight is expected to begin this fall.

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“Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission builds upon the success of Ax-1, which demonstrated our team’s ability to work collaboratively with our partners at NASA and SpaceX to plan and execute a complex human spaceflight mission,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s chief of mission integration and operations.

The new mission just like Ax-1 looks to put the civilians to work on select science experiments and outreach from the station.

Axiom Space has four private missions planned to the ISS aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules, but is also looking to send up the first of several modules to connect to the ISS that will become its own commercial space aboard. Down the line, before the end of the ISS’s planned mission life in 2023, the Axiom modules will separate and become their own commercial station.

It’s one of four commercial space stations in the works through NASA contracts — Starlab from Lockheed Martin, Nanoracks and Voyager Space; Orbital Reef from Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Boeing and others; and a final one from Northrop Grumman — but none likely would be in business until 2027 at the earliest.

In the meantime, Axiom continues to earn funds through the space tourism flights.

“Axiom continues to fund and fly private astronaut missions to the International Space Station to build our expertise and attract new customers in preparation for the launch of our space station, Axiom Station,” Hassmann said.

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