The Axiom-1 crew launches today. Are these guys tourists, astronauts or what?

Enlarge / The Axiom-1 mission will carry out the fifth mission of this Falcon 9 rocket first stage.

Nasa

A crew of four private citizens is to launch today to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center.

This is the Axiom-1 mission, named after the private company Axiom Space which organized the flight. This mission will go down in history as the first fully private mission to the International Space Station. The Orbital Laboratory was established decades ago to foster international cooperation in space at a time when spaceflight was almost solely the preserve of large, powerful nations.

But the lab, at least for the United States, has become an important low Earth orbit beachhead for commercial activity. NASA astronauts have for years conducted private research experiments, deployed CubeSats, and performed other government-approved activities to promote commercial spaceflight.

The Axiom-1 mission will move on to the next stage. Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain and the United States, pilot Larry Connor of the United States and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada will spend approximately 10 days in space and a little more a week on the station. Their time will be theirs, they will conduct a bit of research and also enjoy the experience of living in space.

For Axiom, this is the first of many missions it is planning and the first with private astronauts staying aboard the NASA segment of the space station. However, by the end of 2024, the company plans to launch its own spacious module towards the station, where its customers will be able to come and go more freely. Before the end of the 2020s, this module and others launched later by Axiom will detach and become an independent and private space station.

This is all happening with NASA’s blessing for a myriad of reasons. First, the agency wants to extend its horizon of human exploration to the Moon, and perhaps one day to Mars. He would like to leave low Earth orbit in the hands of private spaceflight partners. The International Space Station, too, is aging, with some modules having been in space for almost a quarter of a century. One day, it will no longer be possible to maintain the station.

And finally, perhaps most obviously, the longstanding partnership between the United States and Russia that created the space station is in jeopardy. As Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine increase, it could become unsustainable for NASA and Roscosmos to continue working together in space.

This mission, the first of its kind, may be a little tricky. During half a dozen pre-flight briefings, astronauts and Axiom officials struggled to score their experience. During a call in February, López-Alegría repeatedly stressed that the airmen “are not space tourists” and that the purpose of the mission was to do science.

After I tweeted about it, a former astronaut texted me with this reply: “Axiom guys claiming they do science, that’s overkill! That’s the best way to put it.” This astronaut’s argument was that these airmen were trying to distract from the fact that they are mostly older, privileged white men who are lucky enough to be able to afford a tourist trip to space.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The Axiom-1 crew members are extremely privileged, and they most certainly go to space because they want to and can afford to. But they are also more than space tourists. They have spent the better part of a year training for this mission and are well versed in piloting the Crew Dragon spacecraft, as well as working aboard the space station. There’s a huge difference between that and the few hours of training a space tourist receives before taking a suborbital flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

The reality is that the Ax-1 crew is something new: an important part of the transition from spaceflight as a primarily government-led activity to one led by commercial space companies like SpaceX. For example, this will be the fifth first-stage flight of this Falcon 9 rocket, making it a much more experienced booster than previously used for manned spaceflight. No one really knows where this is all heading, if it’s sustainable, or just how weird things can get. But with today’s launch, the Ax-1 crew are among the first pioneers to explore this new commercial frontier.

Liftoff is scheduled for 11:17 a.m. ET (3:17 p.m. UTC) today.

Mission Axiom-1.

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