Axiom Crew Lifts Off On Charter Flight To ISS

Ax-1 launch
Credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL—One of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, now employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, headed back into orbit on April 8 accompanied by three paying passengers for the first U.S.-backed private mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission, known as Axiom-1 (Ax-1), kicks off a series of private astronaut missions to the ISS as part of an ongoing effort to expand commercial use and development of low Earth orbit (LEO).

Key to that initiative has been SpaceX, currently the only U.S. provider of crewed flight service to LEO. Boeing in May is scheduled to conduct a second uncrewed flight test of its CST-100 Starliner system, followed by a crewed flight test in late 2022 or early 2023 and the start of commercial services, first for NASA and eventually for private customers as well.

SpaceX’s sixth human spaceflight, chartered by Axiom, began at 11:17 a.m. EDT with liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. For the first time since SpaceX began using the former shuttle launchpad five years ago, the adjacent 39B was occupied as well: NASA’s first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is poised at the pad for a wet dress rehearsal for a launch expected in June or July.

Perched on top of the Falcon 9 was a Crew Dragon capsule carrying Ax-1 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, a former NASA astronaut and ISS commander; Larry Connor, 72, a Dayton, Ohio-based real estate and technology entrepreneur; Mark Pathy, 52, chairman and CEO of Mavrik, a Montreal- based investment firm; and Israeli entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe, 64, the founding partner of Vital Capital, an impact investment company that focuses on developing countries.

Two min. 39 sec. later after liftoff, the rocket’s reusable first stage separated and headed back for its fifth landing. Meanwhile, the rocket’s second stage fired to put the Crew Dragon capsule into orbit.

 “Zero G and we feel fine,” Lopez-Alegria radioed to ground control teams, reprising the words spoken by 60 years ago by Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. 

The Ax-1 crew is scheduled to reach the ISS on April 9, with docking at the zenith port of the station’s Harmony module targeted for 7:45 a.m. EDT.  The men are slated to spend 8-9 days aboard the station conducting science experiments and educational outreach activities, and enjoying the view.

Axiom has contracted four private astronaut missions with SpaceX for an undisclosed price. For the first three missions, the company intends to fly an Axiom crewmember along with the paying passengers, as it builds up experience working with NASA. The private missions will serve as pathfinders for an Axiom-owned and operated module that is expected to be attached to the ISS in late 2024.

Axiom president and CEO Mike Suffredini said that by the fourth flight the company plans to fly four paying crewmembers in Crew Dragon seats, rather than flying a professional Axiom (and former NASA) astronaut.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.