As early as next year, these four men could make history by becoming members of the the first commercial crew to visit the International Space Station.
The private crew, led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, is scheduled to spend eight days at the ISS, where they will participate in research and various philanthropic projects, according to an Axiom Space statement released Tuesday. The team would launch on a SpaceX CrewDragon, in a trip that could happen as early as January 2022. The proposed Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) is being referred to as a “precursor” mission, as the company hopes to construct the world’s first privately funded space station.
In addition to López-Alegría, the Ax-1 crew will consist of pilot Larry Connor, an American entrepreneur and nonprofit investor, Mark Pathy, an investor and philanthropist, and Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot. Both Pathy and Stibbe have been assigned as mission specialists.
Houston-based Axiom Space, founded in 2016, works with both civil and private partners to provide “training, transportation, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, safety and hardware certifications, on-orbit operations, and overall mission management,” according to the statement.
Axiom, in conjunction with NASA, would like to offer at least two private and public flights to the ISS each year. One of these astronauts could be Tom Cruise, who is supposed to star in a movie shot aboard the station.
The company’s main aspiration, however, is to build and deploy its own space station, which Axiom would make available to the international community. Axiom plans to build its space station as a section of the current space station. After the ISS is retired, Axiom’s station would be set free and orbit independently around Earth. The Axiom Station, as it’s slated to be called, is expected to serve as the “the central node of a near-future network of research, manufacturing, and commerce” in low Earth orbit, according to the company.
This solution for the commercial expansion of the ISS was chosen by NASA in January 2020. Axiom plans to add its modules to the Harmony node of the ISS in 2024, with deployment of Axiom Station expected at some point during the late 2020s. The Ax-1 mission represents an important first step in that direction. NASA and Axiom are still hashing out the final details (the Ax-1 mission is still unofficial), but the plan is being forged by the company under a commercial agreement with NASA. That the company has chosen a crew is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
López-Alegría is quite experienced, having flown to space in four NASA missions, logging nearly 260 days in space. His last trip to the ISS was in 2007, and he’s poised to achieve a bunch of firsts, including becoming the first person to command both civil and commercial flights to space, the first person to fly a private mission to space, and the first astronaut to return to the ISS as a private citizen.
Connor turns 71 this year, which means he’ll become the second-oldest person to visit space, should the mission get off the ground. The late John Glenn was 77 years old when he flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998. For the Ax-1 mission, Connor, a real estate and fintech entrepreneur, will collaborate with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects. He also plans to teach lessons to students at a school in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Pathy is poised to become the 11th Canadian to visit space, and his intention for the mission is to organize research projects with the Canadian Space Agency and the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
Stibbe would become the second Israeli to visit space, but for him, the pending Ax-1 mission has some serious emotional weight to it. Stibbe was a close friend of astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. For the mission, Stibbe plans to conduct scientific experiments on behalf of the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science & Technology.
The chosen backup commander for the mission is former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, and the backup pilot is John Shoffner from Knoxville, Tennessee (this will be the second time that Whitson has served as the backup commander for López-Alegría). Both will go through Axiom Space’s full training program alongside the chosen crew.
It’s admittedly strange to think about private citizens and private companies organizing trips to space, but that’s the future. America’s space program began as state-based necessity—no one ever promised that it would stay that way.