The Axiom Space Mission 1 (Ax-1) successfully launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, carrying the first-ever fully-private crew to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at 11:17 am ET, carrying a four-person crew on the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour.
The historic launch represents a huge milestone for NASA and its private partners as they seek to build a sustainable space economy
Private citizens, or "space tourists," have traveled to the ISS before, alongside government-affiliated astronauts. This mission, however, is different. The entirely private crew will spend eight days living and working aboard the ISS -- they are far from "tourists."
"This is all part of making humans a space-faring civilization -- taking life on this planet across the stars, eventually," Benji Reed, senior director of Human Spaceflight Programs at SpaceX, said during a news briefing on Thursday. "It's not just that they're going for a visit. They've done a ton of training... They get to be on the station doing science, doing research. It bodes very well to see this level of preparation go into this mission as we look toward the future of all of us being able to live and work in space."
Preparing for the mission
After the successful lift-off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the crew is expected to arrive at the ISS on Saturday around 7:30 am ET.
The crew is led by Commander Michael López-Alegría, who was born in Spain, raised in California, and spent 20 years as a NASA astronaut before becoming an Axiom VP. Larry Connor, a businessman from Dayton, Ohio will serve as pilot. They're joined by Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe, a business and former fighter pilot from Israel, and Mission Specialist Mark Pathy, a businessman from Canada. Connor, Stibbe and Pathy each paid $55 million to join the crew.
Axiom Space, a private firm founded in 2016 in Texas, has authority over the mission during most phases of flight. NASA is responsible for the mission's integrated operations, covering the spacecraft's approach to the ISS and the crew's eight days aboard the ISS. NASA gives up authority over the mission once Dragon exits the vicinity of the space station.
Meanwhile, NASA has worked with its private partners and other government agencies to outline jurisdiction during various phases of the mission in the event of a mishap.
While Axiom and SpaceX compete against other private entities in the nascent space economy, "we believe in having an ecosystem and lots of people working together," SpaceX's Reed said. "In order to do that, you have to have great communication and great partnerships... It's a competition to have lots of providers, but it's not a competition to get people safely to space or get cargo safely to space. The point is to have us all be successful."
Axiom, SpaceX and NASA teams have been collaboratively preparing for every facet of the mission.
"Everything from figuring out what minimum level of training is required for a day in the life of ISS, to what to do to get trained on the payload facilities," Dana Weigel, NASA's ISS deputy program manager, said to reporters. "All onboard activities are new, including integration with our international partners -- it's been a large team effort to get ready for it."
Typically, NASA spends years preparing astronauts to live and work aboard the ISS.
"Our crew members go through two years of initial training when we first select them, and then they go through off and on training throughout the years, and then finally it culminates in intensive, flight-specific training for a year and a half," Weigel said.
On the other end of the spectrum, "space tourists" who have previously visited the ISS required very little training. "Their interest is usually in two different things," Weigel said, "to get great photos out of the window, and the other is using email... They don't need to train; they don't need to understand a lot. This is completely different."
Working on the ISS
Once the Axiom crew is on board the ISS, they will conduct more than 25 different experiments tailored to the crew members' interests and affiliations.
For instance, Connor, the Ax-1 mission pilot, is working on research projects as a partner of the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic. Conner has helped fund research at both institutions for much of the last decade. On behalf of the Mayo Clinic, he will provide data on space travel's impact on senescent cells (cells that have stopped dividing) and heart health. In partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, Conner will undergo pre- and post-mission high-resolution MRIs to study the effects of the spaceflight environment on spinal and brain tissue.
Pathy, meanwhile, will conduct research on behalf of the Montreal Children's Hospital, Canadian Research Universities and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. His projects include the first in-space demonstration of two-way holoportation -- a mixed reality app for special lenses that receives two-way 3D projections as a hologram to communicate between users remotely. Pathy also plans to lead Earth observation activities to help analyze the impact of climate change, urbanization, and other factors on the ecology and human habitation of North America.
Stibbe is conducting research on behalf of the Ramon Foundation and in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency in the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology.
The crew will also conduct Ax-1-specific experiments, including TESSERAE Ax-1, which will test an autonomous, self-assembling robotic swarm of tiles in microgravity. The study will help assess the feasibility of the construction of satellites and space habitats in orbit, which would help support future missions to the Moon and Mars as well as space tourism in low-Earth orbit.
Looking at the bigger picture, the Ax-1 mission will demonstrate what's possible when private entities like Axiom and SpaceX facilitate space travel.
Axiom was formed in order to build a commercial space station to replace the ISS once it's retired. The Ax-1 mission is the first of several that will lead to the 2024 launch of an Axiom habitation module that will attach to the ISS. Six months later, Axiom will launch a second habitation module, then a research-focused module, and then a power and thermal module.
"We'll gradually build out that space station between 2024 to 2030 with the goal of eventually separating and providing the commercial LEO [low-Earth orbit] destination of choice once ISS has been retired," Derek Hassmann, Axiom operations director, said to reporters. "We're going to demonstrate the capabilities Axiom brings to the table so that eventual transition from ISS to the commercial Axiom station is smooth and efficient."
From NASA's perspective, the Ax-1 mission should offer significant insight into how best to stimulate commercial activity in space.
"We know we're going to learn a lot from this mission," Angela Hart, NASA's commercial LEO program manager, said to reporters. "We're committed to continue these future pirate astronaut missions."
NASA is currently finalizing its contract with Axiom for the second private astronaut mission, and they also plan to put out a solicitation this year for follow-on private astronaut missions.
"Our goal was to set the bar very high and demonstrate to everyone involved that this is a realistic thing to do, that it can be positive, impactful," Hassmann said, "and from Axiom's perspective, we want to do this several more times."