COLORADO SPRINGS — A US spacecraft’s first commercial mission to the International Space Station is poised for launch to pioneer a new era of commercial orbital manned spaceflight.
At an April 7 briefing, officials from NASA, Axiom Space and SpaceX said the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft are ready for launch at 11:17 a.m. on April 8 from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Forecasters predict a 90% chance of acceptable weather for launch.
One issue still being looked into is the weather at vehicle abort sites along the vehicle’s takeoff to turn off the east coast and into the North Atlantic. Benji Reed, senior director of manned space programs at SpaceX, said the weather in those locations “started to get a little better” following previous concerns that they would violate restrictions on conditions such as wind and sea conditions. “A handful of those points that didn’t look like it have now evolved in the direction of go,” he said.
If Ax-2 doesn’t launch on April 8, there will be additional launch options on April 9 or 10. Should the launch be further delayed, NASA officials said they would negotiate with the Space Launch System program, which is preparing for another attempt at a fuel test and countdown rehearsal as early as April 11.
The mission, called Ax-1, will transport four private astronauts to the ISS for an eight-day stay. Michael López-Alegría, an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut, will lead the mission, with three clients on board: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.
Although non-professional astronauts have visited the station intermittently for more than two decades, all previous visits have involved Soyuz missions to the station. Those missions also all had at least one government cosmonaut on board. Ax-1, on the other hand, is the first to involve a US spacecraft and the first to be fully manned by private individuals rather than government personnel.
Derek Hassmann, director of operations at Axiom, described Ax-1 as a “mission precursor” to the company’s long-term plans, including installing a series of commercial modules at the ISS that would later serve as the core of a self-contained space station. “We will build our relationships with both NASA and SpaceX. We’re going to demonstrate the capabilities that NASA brings,” he said.
The mission is also a pioneer for NASA, as it becomes accustomed to having commercial astronauts on the US segment of the ISS, which they rarely visited on previous Russian missions. “They’ve moved to the US segment, but their interest is usually in two different things. One uses our dome so they can get great pictures out the window, and the other uses email,” said Dana Weigel, NASA ISS deputy program manager. “Our experience so far is really, really limited.”
Axiom and NASA worked closely together on various aspects of the mission, from the amount of training the Ax-1 crew needed on ISS systems to determining what consumables and other cargo to bring to the station. Ax-1, for example, will use some station resources, such as oxygen, to compensate NASA for that, rather than being completely self-sufficient as originally proposed.
“From our point of view, we’re really looking at this in terms of what commercial missions want to look like,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial LEO program. “What are the customer’s needs, what are the markets that are interested. We will learn a lot from that.”
Both Axiom and NASA said they were committed to working together on this mission and using the lessons learned to inform future missions. Axiom has a NASA deal for its Ax-2 mission, another Crew Dragon flight to the ISS, in early 2023. NASA plans to seek proposals for additional private astronaut missions after Ax-1 flies.
“The space station team is very excited about this first of its kind mission and also being at the forefront of helping commercialize low Earth orbit,” Weigel said, adding that interest extended to the astronauts on the planet. IS itself. “They are very excited to welcome the Axiom crew on board and are excited to be a part of this first, historic mission.”
“They want to be the best possible private astronauts you can imagine,” Hassmann said of the Ax-1 crew. “They want to be good house guests, if you will.”