What is Axiom Space? Meet the “middle man” in the budding space tourism industry

They’ll travel on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and dock at the station via a SpaceX Dragon capsule, but don’t confuse Axiom with Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company. It has a completely different purpose. Axiom focuses less on building rockets than on rethinking the future of space stations.

The four crew members, three paying passengers and a former NASA astronaut serving as commander participating in the mission, dubbed Ax-1, will taxi to the ISS via SpaceX vehicles as part of the trip. 10 days. Axiom has arranged with NASA for them to spend eight days aboard the orbiting laboratory run by a team of international government-backed agencies. While on the ISS, civilians are scheduled to help with more than two dozen science experiments, as well as pave the way for the development of Axiom’s plans to build the first commercial space station.

Axiom, SpaceX and NASA announced late Sunday that they are now targeting no earlier than Friday at 11:17 am ET for the launch, which will take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If the launch goes as planned on Friday, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule docking with the station is scheduled for early Saturday morning. Those interested in seeing the launch can tune in via NASA and Axiom Space’s live coverage of the event on Friday morning.

The commander of the first private astronaut mission to the ISS is Michael López-Alegría of Axiom, a veteran Hispanic-American NASA astronaut with four previous spaceflights under his belt, and who now holds the professional title of Vice President of Business Development for Axiom. . . He will be joined by three fee-paying crewmates: Larry Connor of the United States, Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada, each of whom doled out an estimated $55 million to Axiom to bring the voyage to the orbit. (Axiom did not publicly disclose the specific financial details of the trip.)

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming Axiom spaceflight, which It comes as a handful of private companies seek to commercialize space beyond our planet’s surface.

What is AxiomSpace?

Axiom Space, the Houston-based company that oversees the entire mission, doesn’t build launch vehicles or rockets like some of the other players in the emerging private spaceflight industry, such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

The company organizes so-called “private astronaut” missions to the ISS, which include seventeen weeks of training and customized itineraries based on the individual goals of those wealthy enough to pay for the trip. Ax-1 is the company’s first of these planned trips to the ISS, and late last year NASA and Axiom announced that Ax-2 is targeting a launch between fall 2022 and spring 2023. In addition to its manned spaceflight services, Axiom also offers on its website opportunities for companies and individuals seeking to access space for research purposes.
NASA uses the term “private astronaut missions” to refer to “missions that are privately funded, fully commercial spaceflight in a commercial launch vehicle for the purpose of enabling tourism, outreach, commercial research, and commercial activities and approved marketing plans on the space station. However, referring to ultra-rich thrill-seekers by the title of “astronaut” has sparked heated debates about its definition online in recent years.

In January 2020, NASA selected Axiom to provide at least one commercial habitable module to be added to the ISS Harmony node in 2024. Axiom said it has plans for its module to be ready to separate from the station in late 2028. and operate as the first building block of a private commercial space station.

Axiom’s lofty plans to build the first private space station and pioneer the commercialization of low-Earth orbit are what it sees as setting it apart from others in the nascent private space industry. The company even touts the Ax-1 mission as “an important step toward Axiom’s goal of building a private space station in low-Earth orbit that can serve as a global academic and commercial hub.”

Building a commercial destination in low earth orbit

Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini, a 30-year NASA veteran who served as ISS program manager from 2005 to 2015, described Ax-1 during a pre-launch press conference last week as a “precursor mission.” of the company’s plans to eventually assemble and launch its fully commercial space station into orbit.

While Axiom is partnering with SpaceX to launch its private astronauts, “SpaceX is just a taxi,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told CNN Business of the company’s role. of Musk in this Axiom mission.

Logsdon, who was the founder and longtime director of GW’s Space Policy Institute, added that he sees Axiom’s inaugural private astronaut mission as “the first step in a process that could result in one or more private space stations doing a variety of things in the low Earth”. orbit.”

“We’ve had the International Space Station in orbit, with people on board, since the year 2000,” Logsdon added. “NASA says it will take it out of orbit in 2030 or so and hand over the use of low Earth orbit to the private sector.”

Ax-1 Crew (from left to right) Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Michael López-Alegría and Eytan Stibbe on SpaceX Crew Dragon during training.

Axiom Space “is the first of the private sector companies to prepare for that transition,” according to Logsdon. He noted that construction of the first modules of the Axiom space station is already underway overseas, and they are scheduled to be shipped to Houston for final assembly next year before their tentative launch in 2024.

“Like all business investments, there is a high risk of failure, but a chance, a very real chance, of success, success in terms of the economic benefits of doing things in space,” Logsdon said. In February 2021, Axiom said it has raised some $130 million from investors, adding that “the new funding will accelerate the growth of Axiom’s workforce and the construction of its private development space station.”

While private astronauts looking to venture beyond Earth’s surface can strike a launch deal directly with SpaceX, as billionaire Jared Isaacman did last year for his self-funded Inspiration4 mission, Logsdon says the purpose of the Axiom’s mission is “fundamentally different from Inspiration4.”

Logsdon said these voyages are the first step in the process toward Axiom’s main goal of building a commercial space station to replace the ISS. The Inspiration4 mission was “basically a tourist trip,” he added.

While it will likely be years before opportunities to visit a commercial space station become available to more than just the wealthy, Logsdon points out that a private space station could provide benefits beyond vacations for the wealthy, especially if the ISS it is withdrawn as planned, and scientists, engineers, and other researchers look for alternatives.

The privatization of human spaceflight is becoming an increasingly crowded sector amid the rise of a handful of space tourism companies. However, Axiom CEO Suffredini said during last Friday’s press conference that he believes the company’s plan to create the first commercial space station and launch the first commercial module to be added to the ISS in 2024 gives it the company an innovative “business plan”. .”

“We think it puts us in a good position relative to the competition, but we’re glad there are others to help us grow LEO.” [low-earth orbit] economy down the road,” Suffredini said.

Logsdon said he has been watching human spaceflight launches for decades and was at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Apollo 11 that put the first humans on the moon in 1969. While the private sector’s foray into spaceflight has confused some of the initial intrigue, he said he’s still planning to tune in for launch.

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