As the Axiom-2 crew prepares to take off to the International Space Station (ISS) in a few weeks from now, NASA is already looking ahead to the third private mission to the orbiting space station later this year, in a mission that will once again involve Axiom.
On Wednesday, NASA announced that it signed a mission order with Axiom Space for a third crew of private astronauts to venture to low Earth orbit. The mission is slated for no earlier than November, with the exact launch date hinging on spacecraft traffic to the ISS, according to NASA. As before, a SpaceX Crew Dragon will deliver the crew to the orbiting lab.
“As NASA’s focus shifts back to the Moon and on to Mars, we are committed to transforming low-Earth orbit into a global space marketplace, where access to space moves beyond the partners of the space station to nations, institutions and individuals with new ideas fueling a thriving human economy beyond Earth,” Michael Suffredini, CEO and president of Axiom Space, said in NASA’s statement.
Axiom’s first private mission to the ISS arrived at the orbiting station in April 2022. The four Ax-1 crew members spent 15 days living and working in the microgravity environment. NASA chose a repeat for the second private ISS mission, once again selecting Axiom Space to launch a crew to the space station. Ax-2 is scheduled to launch on May 12 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
In September 2022, NASA called on its commercial partners to submit proposals for two more private astronaut missions to the ISS that could fly to low Earth orbit as early as late 2023. The space agency initially rejected a proposal from Axiom Space for the third private mission after giving it a poor rating, according to SpaceNews.
It appears NASA may have had a change of heart, picking Axiom Space once again. But it’s still not clear whether Axiom will have a shot for that fourth private mission. “NASA also solicited proposals for a fourth private astronaut mission opportunity in 2024 and will announce the mission after successful completion of negotiations results in an award,” the space agency wrote in the statement.
The first private mission to the ISS wasn’t all smooth-sailing, with the Ax-1 crew admitting that they were overworked on board the space station. They also interfered with the work of normie ISS astronauts. Upon their return, NASA admitted to having learned some important lessons when it comes to private ISS missions. The space agency consequently updated a few of its rules for future private astronauts, including a requirement that the missions would be led by a former NASA astronaut.
Peggy Whitson, who is Axiom Space’s director of human spaceflight and a former NASA astronaut, will serve as the Ax-2 commander. The Ax-2 crew also includes two Saudi astronauts, Ali Algarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, and pilot John Shoffner, who bought his ticket to space from Axiom in 2021.
NASA wants to establish a low Earth orbit marketplace through these missions as the space agency focuses its efforts towards its Moon to Mars objectives. “We are starting to see the incorporation of space into our economic sphere, and it is going to revolutionize the way people see, use, and experience space,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in the statement.
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