A SpaceX rocket lifted off with the first all-private team of astronauts ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS), a flight hailed by industry executives and Nasa as a milestone in commercializing spaceflight.
The four-person team selected by Houston-based startup Axiom Space Inc for its first spaceflight and orbital science mission lifted off Friday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A live video webcast by Axiom showed the 25-story SpaceX launch vehicle – consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by its Crew Dragon capsule – streaking through blue skies above the Atlantic coast of the Florida.
Cameras inside the crew compartment played footage of the four men strapped into the pressurized cabin, seated calmly in their white and black flight suits with helmets as the rocket blasted off into space.
Nine minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage placed the crew capsule in its preliminary orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the rocket’s reusable lower stage, having detached from the rest of the spacecraft, returned to Earth and landed safely on a landing pad floating on a drone in the Atlantic.
Webcast launch commentator Kate Tice described the take-off as “absolutely perfect”. A crew member could be heard saying at mission control in a radio transmission, “That was one hell of a ride.”
If all goes as planned, the quartet led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday, after a flight of more than 20 hours, and the autonomous Crew Dragon will dock with the ‘ISS.
SpaceX was directing mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.
Nasa, in addition to providing the launch site, will assume responsibility for the astronauts once they rendezvous with the space station to undertake eight days of scientific and biomedical research.
The mission, representing a partnership between Axiom, SpaceX and Nasa, was touted by the three as a major step in expanding commercial space ventures collectively referred to by insiders as the low Earth orbit economy, or LEO economy.
“We are taking commercial activities off the surface of the Earth and putting them in space,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said before the flight. The shift allowed his agency to focus more on getting humans back to the Moon, Mars and other deep space exploration, he said.
Friday’s launch is also SpaceX’s sixth manned spaceflight in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the space station and September’s “Inspiration 4” launch that sent an all-civilian crew into orbit. for the first time. This flight did not dock with the ISS.
While the space station has welcomed civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use the ISS for its intended purpose as an on-orbit research laboratory.
The Axiom team will share the zero-gravity working environment with seven regular government-paid ISS crew members: three American astronauts, one German and three Russian cosmonauts.
Lopez-Alegria, 63, the Spanish-born Axiom mission commander, is also the company’s vice president of business development. His second-in-command is Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatic aviator from Ohio assigned as a mission pilot. Connor is over 70; the company did not provide his specific age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 team are Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both mission specialists. The flight makes Stibbe the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished along with six NASA crewmates in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
The Axiom crew members may seem to have a lot in common with many wealthy passengers taking suborbital journeys in recent months aboard Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services offered by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively.
But Axiom said its mission goes far beyond space tourism, with each crew member undergoing hundreds of hours of astronaut training with Nasa and SpaceX.
The Ax-1 team will also conduct about 20 science experiments, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity, company executives said.
Launched into orbit in 1998, the space station has been permanently manned since 2000 under a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
Nasa has no plans to invest in a new space station once the ISS is retired, around 2030. But Nasa selected Axiom in 2020 to build a new commercial wing at the orbital lab, which is currently the length of a soccer field.
Plans include eventually detaching the Axiom modules from the rest of the station when it is ready to be decommissioned. Other private operators are expected to place their own stations in orbit once the ISS is out of service.
In the meantime, Axiom said it has contracted with SpaceX to fly three more private astronaut missions to the space station over the next two years.