For the third time, an all-private crew goes to the International Space Station. The four-person crew lifted off Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, kicking off a 36-hour orbit of the research lab. Docking is scheduled for Saturday morning.
The two-week mission is managed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which has been conducting private space missions to the ISS as a step toward building a fully commercial space station in low Earth orbit later this decade.
Axiom's third mission, Ax-3, launched Thursday at 4:49 p.m. EST (21:49 UTC). Four astronauts are strapped into their seats inside SpaceX's Dragon Freedom spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. This will be the 12th time SpaceX has launched a human spaceflight, and the first of five Dragon crewed missions this year.
Falcon 9 lined up with the International Space Station's flight path northeast of Kennedy Space Center. After passing through cloud cover, the rocket's reusable first stage separated two and a half minutes after liftoff to begin its descent back to Cape Canaveral for landing. The upper stage ignited a single engine to propel the Dragon capsule into orbit.
No retirement ceremony
In comments radioed to the ground immediately after launch, Ax-3 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria described the sensations of the launch as “acceleration, a little vibration, the feeling that you're going fast. Wow, what a thrill!”
López-Alegría was a Spanish-born astronaut and US Navy veteran. He is one of the most experienced astronauts in history, and Ax-3 marks his sixth flight into space. Lopez-Alegria, 65, retired from NASA in 2012 after four space shuttle missions. He worked as a consultant and commercial spaceflight attorney, then joined Axiom in 2017 and will command the company's first private space flight in 2022.
Why do most commercial airline pilots have such a rigorous training schedule at the age of mandatory retirement?
“It never gets old,” Lopez-Alegria said at a pre-launch press conference. “I think I have a greater appreciation for every launch that comes along … the first time you go, you're hanging on for dear life and enjoying the ride. But I think you appreciate each one a little bit more, especially when you realize how rare and opportunity it is, so this I'm happy to continue.”
He alternates command of the Axiom missions with Peggy Whitson, another retired NASA astronaut.
“Axiom definitely wants to continue personal space missions. We'll have other commanders in the future, but until they ask me to fly, I'll hold my hand,” Lopez-Alegria said. He is the first astronaut to fly twice aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft.
“A reused Commander, a reused Dragon and a reused Falcon, or perhaps a better word is flight experience,” joked chief engineer Bill Gerstenmeyer in Thursday's release. .
Pilot Walter Villadei sat on López-Alegría's right side during the ascent to orbit. He was a colonel in the Italian Air Force. Turkey's first astronaut Alber Keserauci and Swedish test pilot Markus Wand rounded out the Ox-3 crew. They will temporarily join the long-term residents of the space station, where four crew members who flew aboard a Dragon in August will begin their six-month stay.
The government has cornered the market
Villadei, Gezeravcı and Wandt fly to the space station through contracts between their governments and Axiom. The astronauts, all military personnel, will conduct scientific experiments developed by their country's researchers and participate in education and outreach events from orbit.
More than 30 research investigations will be flown on the Ax-3, from biophysiological experiments looking at how microgravity affects the human body, to technical demonstrations and Earth science. For example, the Italian Air Force developed a software tool tested on Ax-3 to provide space debris and space weather warnings to the space station. Turkey sends experiments in the fields of genetics and metallurgy. Sweden and the European Space Agency conduct experiments in brain research, remote control and AI and stem cells.
But there is a clear element of national pride intertwined with these scientific pursuits.
Villadei flies under the Italian flag through an agreement between the Italian government and Axiom, whereas most Italian astronauts have historically flown under the umbrella of the European Space Agency. He had previously soared into space in a companion flight on a Virgin Galactic space flight, recording a few minutes of microgravity. He was one of three Italian Air Force service members on a Virgin Galactic flight last June.
“This mission is very important for Italy,” Villadei said. “This is a fundamental step in our national space strategy.”
Kesaravsi's flight was historic as he became the first Turkish citizen to travel into space. “We have been waiting a long time for this mission to become a reality,” he said. “I'm very honored to be able to take on this role in this mission and make it a reality.”
Wand's work was made possible by an agreement between ESA and the Swedish National Space Agency. ESA finalized an agreement with Axiom to secure Wandt's seat on Ax-3.
Wand's presence on the board is a first for ESA. This is the first time the space agency has orbited one of its astronauts with a commercial entity, rather than an intergovernmental agreement with the United States or Russia. He is one of 17 astronauts selected by ESA in 2022, but he joined ESA's ranks as a reserve astronaut, meaning he will continue his career as a test pilot at Saab Aeronautics until selection for spaceflight.
He didn't have to wait long. “This additional aircraft came about and Sweden was very decisive in this and together with industry, the armed forces, government and ESA it happened with Axiom,” Wand said.
ESA has six astronauts who have flown in space, and five new career astronauts and 12 reserves have been selected for 2022. Commercial flight opportunities like this one with Axiom help more Europeans access space. An ESA reserve astronaut from Poland could launch on an Axiom mission later this year.
“We have our astronaut representing the backbone of our operations in human spaceflight,” Daniel Neunswander, ESA's director of human and robotic exploration, said in an interview with Ars on Thursday. “But we also selected these reserves, which is kind of a talent pool where we're capturing opportunities that come up. It allows us to do more missions in human spaceflight.”
Axiom does not advertise seat prices for its trips to the space station, but in the past, they have reportedly cost about $55 million. Swedish media reported last year Sweden expanded its investment in ESA to more than 400 million Swedish krona, or more than $38 million at current exchange rates, enabling Wand's spaceflight opportunity.
Axiom officials see government-sponsored astronauts as a lucrative market. It differs from the usual image of wealthy space tourists paying their own way into orbit. Axiom's business also has an element of that. Axiom's first mission in 2022 flew three self-funded private astronauts, and Ax-2 last year flew a mixed crew that included the Axiom commander, an American businessman and two Saudi astronauts.
NASA is also supporting these private space exploration missions. The US space agency opened the International Space Station to private visitors flying all commercial missions in 2019. It is a cornerstone of NASA's strategy to develop a commercial market for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit. The case for a privately owned space station to replace the ISS after its planned retirement in 2030.