Private astronauts dock and then crowd the space station

The largest orbiting laboratory in the sky just got a lot busier.

The Axiom Space mission, the first all-private astronaut expedition to the International Space Station, arrived Saturday morning. As the ISS flew 250 miles directly over the Atlantic Ocean, private astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy successfully docked the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and opened the hatch at 10:13 a.m. ET.

Perhaps a new group photo—with some lagging and cabin fever-tired faces—says it all.

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The Axiom crew will spend 10 days aboard the space station to conduct science experiments using the lab’s unique microgravity environment and participate in other commercial activities.

The mission will earn its place in history by expanding the definition of “astronaut.” For decades, that title was reserved for space pilots and government crew members. More recently, uber-wealthy space tourists riding Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been awarded the accolade of breaking through Earth’s atmosphere.

With this new journey comes a third possible description: one who was privately trained and launched into space to conduct commercial scientific research.

“It’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts,” said Larry Connor, the mission’s pilot, at a news conference a week ago. “Our feeling is with the space tourists, they will train for 10 or 15 hours for five to 10 minutes in space – and by the way, that’s fine. In our case, depending on our role, we have somewhere between 750 and up to more than 1,000 hours of training.”

With the four Axiom astronauts on board, the space station now has a group of 11. That’s almost double the capacity the space station was supposed to support: a crew of six, according to NASA (although the station can temporarily support other visitors as well) . Now imagine that the space station is only about the size of a five-bedroom house.

Before the official public broadcast began, the crew had to refocus the camera to fit all of the space station’s residents into the frame, a mission broadcast commentator said.

But it’s not a record. Most of the people who stay on the space station at the same time are dozens of bakers. Occupancy increased three times during the Space Shuttle program to 13 people: STS-127 in July 2009, STS-128 in August 2009, and STS-131 in April 2010.

Other current residents include three NASA astronauts, Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari, and Kayla Barron; an astronaut from the European Space Agency, Matthias Maurer; and three Roscosmos cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Sergey Korsokov and Denis Matveev.

What were the newcomers’ reactions to the view from their new digs?

“One by one I heard them say ‘expletively removed’ as soon as they looked out the window, literally all of them, and I smiled a little,” said Lopez-Alegria, the commander of the Axiom mission. † “And when I got my turn to look at it, the same expletive. It’s just an amazing experience.”

Guess you just have to use your imagination.

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