- Axiom Space, a startup co-founded by a former NASA space station program manager, has inked a deal to fly all-private missions to orbit with SpaceX rockets and ships.
- Axiom told Business Insider that “part of the crew is locked in” for the first mission, scheduled to launch in 2021, but declined to name those private astronauts.
- NASA says it can accommodate two private missions to the International Space Station (ISS) per year, and Axiom plans to launch that many per year.
- The startup eventually hopes to fly its own modules to the ISS in a few years, then later reconfigure them into a private space station.
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Axiom Space, a startup co-founded by a former NASA manager, has inked a deal with SpaceX to launch the first all-private crewed missions into orbit.
The venture capital-backed company announced the deal on Thursday. The news, broken in Forbes by Jonathan O’Callaghan, follows a NASA announcement in June that the agency is opening up its modules on the International Space Station (ISS) to private crew members for $35,000 a night.
Private astronauts have flown to the ISS for years, but always as part of a larger professional crew and always on board Russia’s Soyuz spaceship. Axiom, led by CEO and co-founder Mike Suffredini, who managed NASA’s space station program for a decade before retiring from the agency, says it aims to launch the first all-private ISS mission “as soon as the second half of 2021.”
“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” Suffredini said in a statement.
That first mission will fly a privately trained commander and three other private astronauts aboard SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship. Crew Dragon has flown to orbit and back and proved its escape system works. The spaceship has yet to fly any people, but that should change this spring with SpaceX’s Demo-2 test mission for NASA, which will rocket veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit.
When asked about its arrangement with SpaceX or how much a ticket aboard Crew Dragon might cost, a spokesperson for Axiom told Business Insider in an email that “it is our policy not to discuss pricing or contract details.” However, NASA’s Office of Inspector General estimated in a November 2019 report that the agency would pay roughly $55 million per astronaut (which is about $35 million cheaper than a spot aboard Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship).
The spokesperson also declined to name the mission commander or any space tourist on the flight, but said “part of the crew is locked in,” indicating one or more the four crew members have yet to finalize a contract to fly.
“[W]e have a pipeline of prospects with whom we are always in various stages of discussion about seats on several of our planned flights,” the spokesperson said.
The first mission is slated to dock with the ISS for more than a week to allow the private crew to experience “microgravity and views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station,” the announcement said.
Around 2024, though, Axiom hopes to launch its own private modules to attach to and expand the ISS — then reconfigure them into a private space station once NASA decides to de-orbit its decades-old, football-field-sized facility.
NASA, when asked about the fresh announcement, gave Business Insider the following statement:
“Axiom’s partnership with SpaceX directly supports NASA’s broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by United States entities. NASA’s goal is to achieve a robust economy in low-Earth orbit from which NASA can purchase services as one of many customers. A robust commercial space economy ensures national interests for research and development in low-Earth orbit are fulfilled while allowing NASA to focus government resources on deep space exploration through the Artemis program and land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon in 2024.”
Axiom is on its way to cornering the private space-mission market
NASA told Business Insider that, as part of its plans to increasingly commercialize low-Earth orbit and the ISS itself, the agency “intends to accommodate up to two short-duration private astronaut mission opportunities” per year.
“Interested entities need to make an agreement with NASA for those missions,” NASA said. “At this point, all private astronaut mission opportunities are available to outside entities.”
However, Axiom hopes to launch two all-private missions per year to the ISS. Should NASA sign off on such an arrangement, Axiom may be the premier private-mission provider for some time.
Such a decision may affect the plans of competitors such as Bigelow Aerospace, which is also building private space station modules designed to attach to the ISS or serve as independent research laboratories (and hotels) in orbit.
Although Axiom can approve whomever it wants to fly aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, NASA says it and its space station partners “will have final approval for all crew traveling to the ISS.”
“Private astronauts will have to meet FAA regulatory requirements, which include liability waivers, insurance, and indemnification during launch and reentry activities,” NASA said.
Those who are approved for flight will train at Axiom and NASA facilities in Houston, Texas, and, for Crew Dragon-specific training, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. At NASA facilities, private astronauts will be trained by KBR, “a leading solutions provider to the civil, military and commercial space industry” that recently signed a Space Act Agreement with the agency and has helped train professional astronauts for decades.
“The commander will be trained to the same level as a NASA astronaut,” Axiom said, and with a company-designed curriculum crafted in part by “two former NASA astronauts and a long-time Mission Control flight director.”
Axiom views itself as distinct compared to Space Adventures, which recently acquired seats aboard Crew Dragon missions and has flown space tourists for decades.
“Space Adventures is a broker. Axiom is not. Axiom is a full-service mission provider that manages its own missions,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, our flights will go to ISS and allow customers to experience life aboard ISS and have, essentially, better views and room to move around — as opposed to merely floating in a capsule in orbit for a few days.”
Axiom says it hopes to take advantage of its fuller access to reach a customer base made up of governments “that want to get into human spaceflight” or expand their existing presence on the ISS. The company is also, of course, targeting (presumably very wealthy) private individuals.
Practically, the startup says it hopes to help agencies and companies — likely including NASA and SpaceX — test Mars-bound systems. Axiom also wants to boost commercial activity in space and profit from “in-space research, microgravity manufacturing, or media and brand partnerships.”