A SpaceX spacecraft has lifted off with the first fully private crew of astronauts ever launched into the International Space Station (ISS), a flight hailed by NASA and industry executives as a milestone in the commercialization of spaceflight.
The team of four selected by the Houston-based startup Axiom Space Inc. for its first spaceflight and orbital science mission took off Friday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The live video feed on Axiom showed all 25 floors spacex launch vehicle, consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by its Crew Dragon capsule, soaring through the blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Cameras inside the crew compartment broadcast images of the four men strapped into the pressurized cabin, sitting calmly in their black and white flight suits with helmets as the rocket soared into space.
Nine minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage placed the crew capsule into its preliminary orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the rocket’s reusable lower stage, having been separated from the rest of the spacecraft, flew back to Earth and landed safely on a landing pad floating on an unmanned ship in the Atlantic.
Launch webcast commentator Kate Tice described liftoff as “absolutely perfect.” A crew member could be heard telling mission control in a radio transmission, “It was an amazing ride.”
If all goes according to plan, the quartet led by retiree POT Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday, after a flight of more than 20 hours, and the autonomously operated Crew Dragon will dock with the ISS.
SpaceX ran mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.
NASA, in addition to equipping the launch site, will take responsibility for the astronauts once they rejoin the space station for eight days of scientific and biomedical research.
The mission, which represents a partnership between Axiom, SpaceX and NASA, has been touted by all three as an important step in expanding commercial space ventures that experts collectively refer to as the low-Earth orbit economy, or economy. LEO.
“We’re taking commercial businesses off the face of the Earth and into space,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said before the flight. The change allowed his agency to focus more on sending humans back to the moon, to Mars and other deep space exploration, he said.
Friday’s launch also stands as SpaceX’s sixth human spaceflight in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the space station and September’s “Inspiration 4” launch that sent a civilian crew to the orbit for the first time. That flight did not dock with the ISS.
While the space station has seen civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first commercial team of astronauts to use the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.
The Axiom team will share the weightless work environment with seven regular government-paid ISS crew members: three American astronauts, a German cosmonaut and three Russians.
López-Alegría, 63, a Spanish-born Axiom mission commander, is also the company’s vice president of business development. His second-in-command is Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatic aviator from Ohio designated as the mission’s pilot. Connor is 70 years old; the company did not provide his precise age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 team are Israeli investor, philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists. The flight makes Stibbe the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.
It may seem like Axiom’s crew members have a lot in common with many of the wealthy passengers who have taken suborbital voyages in recent months aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services offered by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively.
But Axiom said its mission went far beyond space tourism, with each crew member undergoing hundreds of hours of astronaut training with NASA and SpaceX.
The Ax-1 team will also conduct around two dozen scientific experiments, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optical elements using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity, company executives said.
Launched into orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously occupied since 2000 under a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
NASA has no plans to invest in a new space station once the ISS retires, around 2030. But NASA selected Axiom in 2020 to build a new commercial wing for the orbiting laboratory, which is currently the length of a football field.
Plans call for eventually separating the Axiom modules from the rest of the station when it is ready to be decommissioned. Other private operators are expected to put their own stations into orbit once the ISS is out of service.
Meanwhile, Axiom said it has contracted with SpaceX to fly three more private astronaut missions to the space station over the next two years.