On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers set off on a trip to the International Space Station.
The mission is the first to go to the space station on which all passengers are private citizens, and it is the first time that NASA has collaborated in organizing a space tourism visit. The flight marked a pivotal moment in efforts to boost commercial space travel, NASA officials said.
“This is a very, very big step for us in our overall campaign to try to help foster a commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Dana Weigel, deputy space station program manager at NASA, during a press conference after the launch.
But the mission also pointed out that most orbit travel customers will be the very wealthy in the short term. Houston’s Axiom Space acted as the tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days aboard the station, for $55 million each. Axiom contracted SpaceX to provide the transport – a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that takes NASA astronauts to and from the station.
At 11:17 a.m. Eastern time, the mission, called Axiom-1, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida into clear blue skies after a smooth countdown.
“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule detached from the rocket’s second stage. “Thank you for flying Falcon 9. Enjoying your journey to this wonderful space station in the sky.”
The Axiom-1 mission clients are Larry Connor, managing partner of The Connor Group, a Dayton, Ohio company that owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Pathy, managing director of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former Israeli Air Force pilot.
They will be led to the space station by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who is now vice president of Axiom and commander of the Ax-1 mission.
“What a race!” Mr. López-Alegría reported on Twitter from orbit.
They are due to dock at the space station early Saturday.
Although Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA played virtually no role in the launch or orbital journey. Agency officials were excited about this as they envisioned a future where they could simply buy services like a room on a space station from commercial vendors.
The International Space Station, about as long as a football field, is a technological marvel, but one that costs NASA about $1.3 billion a year to operate. Although NASA wants to extend the life of the current station until 2030, it hopes that much cheaper commercial space stations will be in orbit by then.
For NASA, that means learning how to collaborate with a private company in orbit, including hosting space tourists, while Axiom and other companies must figure out how to create a profitable off-planet business.
Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station, and then it has an agreement with NASA to attach several modules it builds to the space station. When the International Space Station is finally retired, these modules must be detached to form the heart of an Axiom station.
“This is truly the first mission in our efforts to build a commercial space station,” said Michael T. Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom who previously worked at NASA managing the ISS.
Space tourism surged last year. Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, began carrying paying customers on brief suborbital trips to the far reaches of space. Virgin Galactic flew its founder, Richard Branson, on a short flight and began selling tickets for future flights.
In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman was the first trip to orbit on which none of the passengers were professional astronauts. For this mission, named Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give opportunities to three people who would never have been able to afford the trip themselves. This trip did not go to the space station, and the four spent three days floating in orbit before returning to Earth.
In contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers pays their own way, and the experience is different. The space station’s first private travelers – most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire – traveled on Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are in charge of the mission from launch to capsule entry near the space station.
At a press conference last month, Mr Connor objected to being called a space tourist.
“Space tourists will spend 10 or 15 hours training, five to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “And by the way, it’s okay. In our case, depending on our role, we spent between 750 and more than 1,000 hours of training.
At least in theory, this is the future that NASA has been working towards for decades.
In 1984, under the Reagan administration, the law that created NASA was changed to encourage private enterprise off Earth. But plans to privatize NASA space shuttle operations were shelved after the loss of Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the last years of communism that beat out NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first Russian-hosted tourist to visit, in 2001. Russia stopped taking private travelers after 2009; with the impending retirement of space shuttles, NASA needed to purchase spare seats on Russian rockets for its astronauts to travel to the space station.
In recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator under the Trump administration, has often spoken about NASA being just one customer among many and how that would significantly reduce costs for NASA.
But for NASA to be one customer among many, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or weightless manufacturing could finally materialize.
For now, the most promising market is that of wealthy people who pay themselves to visit space.
While Axiom Space now declines to comment when asked how much it charges to get people to the International Space Station, the company provided a ticket price a few years ago: $55 million per passenger.
Much of the price is tied to the rocket and spacecraft needed to get to orbit. And once there, guests also have to pay for accommodations and amenities.
In 2019, NASA introduced a fee schedule for use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it will charge companies like Axiom Space $35,000 per night per person for use of dormitories and amenities, including air, water, internet and bathroom. Last year, NASA said it was raising prices for future trips to the station.
In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members have undergone much of the same training as NASA astronauts, particularly for safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Ms. Weigel gave the example of toilets. They had to learn how the toilets on the space station work, but, as guests, they didn’t need to practice fixing the toilets if they malfunctioned.
When boarding the space station, Axiom visitors will receive an orientation on what to do in an emergency and how to use the facilities. “It actually looks like what our crews are doing for the first day and a half,” Ms. Weigel said.
After that, Axiom astronauts will depart and do their own activities, which include 25 science experiments they plan to conduct during the eight days on the space station. Experiments include planned medical work with institutions like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Montreal Children’s Hospital. Axiom astronauts will also perform technology demonstrations such as self-assembling robots that could be used to build future spacecraft in space.
The activities of Axiom visitors are coordinated with those of other space station crew members so people don’t try to use the same facility at the same time.
“It’s more than a 1,000 piece puzzle, I’ll put it that way, to put it all together,” Ms Weigel said.
With a larger than usual number of people staying on the US segment, some of the dorms are makeshift in various parts of the resort. One person will sleep in the Crew Dragon, Ms. Weigel said.
But passengers on the Axiom said they would be careful not to interfere with other crew members.
“We are very aware that we will be invited on board the ISS,” Mr López-Alegría said last month.