The International Space Station, which has remained home to astronauts, cosmonauts, and lately some tourists, is set to welcome a new crew — private astronauts. Four civilians will lift off on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket on Friday to become the first private astronauts to live and work on the Space Station as Nasa pushes for commercialisation of the flying laboratory.
The first private astronaut mission, Axiom Space-1 (Ax-1) will launch at 11:17 a.m. EDT from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with four astronauts from three different countries commanded by a former Nasa astronaut. Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will command the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour as it leaves for the flying outpost with Pilot Larry Connor and Mission Specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy.
The AX-1 mission will dock with the Harmony module’s space-facing port a day later in microgravity. The launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday. An Axiom spokesperson said that the delay would give SpaceX more time to complete pre-launch processing work.
WHO ARE THE FIRST PRIVATE ASTRONAUTS?
Lopez-Alegria, 63, is the Spanish-born mission commander and Axiom’s vice president of business development. He is set to be joined by Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 team are investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.
Stibbe is set to become the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.
NOT SPACE TOURISTS
While the four astronauts have diverse backgrounds from three countries, a common thread remains that they are wealthy, similar to the millionaires club that has been flying on suborbital flights with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. However, commander Lopez-Alegria cleared, “We are not space tourists.”
The four astronauts will be involved in a wide range of research when they arrive at the Space Station and work to unravel the mysteries surrounding chronic pain and sleep disturbances during space travel, Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS), which manifests through changes in visual acuity experienced by many astronauts on long-duration space flights.
The goal for the Ax-1 crew is to set a standard for all future private astronaut missions in terms of our preparation and professionalism,” López-Alegría said. The Ax-1 team will be carrying equipment and supplies for 26 science and technology experiments to be conducted before they are slated to leave orbit and return to Earth 10 days after launch.
While the space station has hosted visits by civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory. They will be sharing the weightless workspace alongside seven regular crew members of the ISS – three U.S. astronauts, a German astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts.