A SpaceX rocket ship launched carrying the first-ever fully private astronaut team International Space Station (ISS), a flight that industry executives and NASA have hailed as a milestone in spaceflight commercialization.
The four-person team was chosen by Houston-based startup Axiom Void Inc. launched its first spaceflight and science orbital mission Friday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Online live broadcast by Axiom showed the 25th floor SpaceX The launch vehicle – consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by a Crew Dragon capsule – heads toward blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Cameras inside the crew cabin broadcast footage of four men strapped into the pressurized cabin, sitting quietly in their helmeted white and black suits as the rocket flew into space.
Nine minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage moved the crew capsule into its initial orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the reusable lower stage rocket, having separated from the rest of the spacecraft, returned to Earth and landed safely on a floating landing pad aboard an unmanned ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Webcast commentator Kate Tice described the launch as “absolutely picture perfect”. A crew member can be heard telling mission control over a radio transmission: “It was a journey from hell.”
If all goes as planned, the Quartet is led by retirees NASA Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday, after a flight of 20 hours or more, and the independently operating Crew Dragon will dock with the International Space Station.
SpaceX was directing mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.
Besides furnishing the launch site, NASA will take responsibility for the astronauts once they meet with the space station to conduct eight days of scientific and biomedical research.
The mission, which represents a partnership between Axiom, SpaceX and NASA, has been described by the three as a major step in expanding commercial space projects collectively referred to by insiders as the Low Earth Orbit Economy, or LEO Economy.
“We’re removing business from the face of the Earth and putting it into space,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said before the flight. This shift has enabled his agency to focus more on returning humans to the Moon, to Mars, and to other explorations of deep space, he said.
Friday’s launch marked SpaceX’s sixth human spaceflight in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the space station and the launch of “Inspiration 4” in September that sent an all-civilian crew into orbit for the first time. That flight did not dock with the International Space Station.
While the space station has hosted occasional civilian visitors, the Ax-1 mission will represent the first commercial team of astronauts to use the International Space Station for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.
The Axiom team will share the weightless work environment with seven regular government-paid International Space Station crew members: three American and German astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts.
Lopez Allegria, 63, the Spanish-born mission leader of Axiom, is also the company’s vice president of business development. The second man in his command is Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and an acrobat pilot from Ohio who has been appointed as the mission pilot. Connor is in his seventies. The company did not state his exact age.
The Ax-1 team includes investor, philanthropist and former Israeli combat pilot Eitan Step, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Bathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists. The flight makes Stipe the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who was killed along with six of his NASA colleagues in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Axiom crew members may seem to have a lot in common with the many wealthy passengers who have taken suborbital flights in recent months aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services provided by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively.
But Axiom said its mission has gone beyond space tourism, with each crew member undergoing hundreds of hours of astronaut training with both NASA and SpaceX.
The Ax-1 team will also conduct about two dozen science experiments including research on brain health, heart stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technical demonstration of producing optics using the surface tension of liquids in microgravity, company executives said.
The space station was launched into orbit in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2000 under a partnership led by the United States and Russia including Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
NASA has no plans to invest in a new space station once the International Space Station is retired, around 2030. But in 2020 NASA chose Axiom to build a new commercial pavilion for the orbiting laboratory, which is currently the length of a football field.
Plans eventually call for the Axiom units to be separated from the rest of the station when they are ready to go down. Other private operators are expected to put their own stations into orbit once the International Space Station is decommissioned.
Meanwhile, Axiom said it has contracted with SpaceX to fly three more special astronaut missions to the space station over the next two years.
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