11:45 am ET Friday update: Right on schedule, beneath bright blue skies in Florida, the Axiom-1 mission successfully launched into orbit on Friday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. At 12 minutes into the flight, the Dragon spacecraft Endeavour separated from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage and began its in-space journey toward the International Space Station. It is expected to dock with the station on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage returned to Earth and made a safe landing on a drone ship after its fifth spaceflight.
Overall, this was SpaceX’s sixth human spaceflight with the Crew Dragon vehicle. The company has transported 22 people into low Earth orbit across those missions in just under two years. To illustrate the rapidity of Dragon’s rise, consider that China, widely regarded as having the second-most capable civil space program in the world, has launched 20 astronauts since 2003.
Original story: A crew of four private citizens is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station today on a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center.
This is the Axiom-1 mission, named after the private company, Axiom Space, that organized the flight. This mission will make history, as it is the first completely private mission to the International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory was created decades ago to foster international cooperation in space at a time when spaceflight was almost solely the province of large, powerful nations.
But the laboratory, at least for the United States, has become an important beachhead in low Earth orbit for commercial activity. NASA astronauts have for years conducted private research experiments, deployed CubeSats, and performed other government-sanctioned activities to foster commercial spaceflight.
The Axiom-1 mission will take the next step. 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 about 10 days in space and a little more than a week on the station. Their time will be their own, and 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 plans and the first with private astronauts staying aboard the NASA segment of the space station. However, by late 2024, the company plans to launch its own spacious module to the station, where its customers will be able to come and go more freely. Before the end of the 2020s, this module and others subsequently launched by Axiom would break off and become an independent, private space station.
All of this is happening with NASA’s blessing for myriad reasons. First of all, the agency wants to expand its human exploration horizon to the Moon, and possibly one day to Mars. It 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 nearly a quarter of a century. Some day it will no longer be possible to maintain the station.
And finally, perhaps most obviously, the long-standing partnership between the United States and Russia that created the space station is in peril. As Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine mount, it may become unsustainable for NASA and Roscosmos to continue working together in space.
This mission, the first of its kind, may be a little awkward. During a half-dozen pre-flight briefings, the astronauts and officials with Axiom have struggled on how to brand their experience. During one call in February, López-Alegría emphasized several times that the fliers “are not space tourists” and that the purpose of the mission was to conduct science.
After I tweeted about this, one former astronaut texted me with this response: “The Axiom guys claiming that they are doing science is a stretch! That’s the nicest way I can put it.” This astronaut’s point was that these fliers were trying to deflect 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 are most definitely going to space because they want to, and they 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 both flying the Crew Dragon spacecraft, as well as working aboard the space station. There is a huge difference between this 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 crew of Ax-1 is something new: an important part of the transition from spaceflight as primarily a government-led activity to one led by commercial space companies like SpaceX. For example, this will be the fifth flight of this Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, making it a far more experienced booster than has previously been used for human spaceflight. No one really knows where this is all headed, whether it is sustainable, or how weird things might get. But with today’s launch, the Ax-1 crew is among the first pioneers to explore this new commercial frontier.
Liftoff is scheduled for 11:17 am ET (15:17 UTC) today.