First All-Private Astronaut Team Takes Off on SpaceX Milestone Flight to the ISS | Place

A SpaceX rocket ship has blown up with the first all-private team of astronauts ever launched into space International Space Station (ISS), a flight hailed by industry executives and NASA as a milestone in the commercialization of space travel.

The team of four selected by Houston-based startup Axiom Place Inc lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Friday morning for its first spaceflight and orbital science mission.

Axiom’s live video webcast showed the 25-story building SpaceX Launch vehicle – consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by a Crew Dragon capsule – hurtling into the blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Cameras in the crew compartment broadcast footage of the four men strapped into the pressurized cabin and sitting quietly in their white-and-black flight suits and helmets as the rocket climbed toward space.

Nine minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage placed the crew capsule in its preliminary orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the rocket’s reusable lower stage, after detaching itself from the rest of the spacecraft, flew itself back to Earth and landed safely on a landing pad floating on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

Launch webcast commentator Kate Tice described the launch as “absolutely picture perfect.” A crew member could be heard radioing Mission Control and saying, “That was one hell of a ride.”

If everything goes according to plan, the quartet will be led around the pensioner NASA Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday after a more than 20-hour flight, and the autonomously operated Crew Dragon will dock with the ISS.

The crew on the rocket before launch. Photo: AP/SpaceX

SpaceX managed mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.

In addition to setting up the launch site, Nasa will assume responsibility for the astronauts once they meet with the space station to undertake eight days of scientific and biomedical research.

The mission, which is a partnership between Axiom, SpaceX and Nasa, has been touted by all three as a major step in the expansion of commercial space companies, collectively referred to by insiders as the low-earth orbit economy, or LEO economy.

“We’re taking commercial businesses off the surface of the earth and taking them to space,” NASA CEO Bill Nelson said before the flight. The postponement allowed his agency to focus more on sending humans back to the Moon, Mars and other space exploration, he said.

Friday’s launch is also SpaceX’s sixth manned spaceflight in almost two years, following four Nasa astronaut missions to the space station and the launch of Inspiration 4 in September, which sent an all-civilian crew into orbit for the first time. This flight did not dock with the ISS.

While the space station has hosted civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will be the first purely commercial team of astronauts to use the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbital research laboratory.

The Axiom team will share the zero-g working environment with seven regular, government-paid ISS crew members: three American astronauts, one German and three Russian cosmonauts.

Lopez-Alegria, 63, the Spanish-born Axiom mission commander, is also the company’s vice president of business development. His deputy is Larry Connor, an Ohio real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatic flyer who has been designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s; The company did not disclose his exact age.

The SpaceX rocket in flight
The SpaceX rocket in flight. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

Rounding out the Ax-1 team are investor-philanthropist and former Israeli 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 died with six NASA crew members in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Axiom’s crew members appear to have much in common with many of the wealthy passengers who have taken suborbital journeys aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services, operated by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively, in recent months.

But Axiom said its mission goes well beyond space tourism, with each crew member completing hundreds of hours of astronaut training at both Nasa and SpaceX.

The Ax-1 team will also conduct about two dozen scientific experiments, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, and a technology demonstration of making optics using the surface tension of liquids in microgravity, company executives said.

Launched into orbit in 1998, the space station has been manned continuously since 2000 under a US-Russia-led partnership involving 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 has chosen Axiom in 2020 to build a new commercial wing of the orbital lab that’s currently the length of a football field.

It is planned to eventually separate the Axiom modules from the rest of the station when it is ready to be decommissioned. Other private operators are expected to place their own stations in orbit once the ISS is out of service.

Meanwhile, Axiom has signed a deal with SpaceX to fly three more private astronaut missions to the space station over the next two years.

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