Axiom Space is expanding its deal with SpaceX to send private crews to the International Space Station. The expanded deal adds two new flights for a total of four flights that are expected to take place by 2023.
Axiom Space was already planning the missions “AX-1” and “AX-2,” which will be commanded by retired NASA astronauts Michael López-Alegría and Peggy Whitson, respectively. The crews are currently going through SpaceX’s training program for commercial astronauts. AX-1 is expected to fly in early 2022.
In an announcement, Axiom Space referred to the expanded agreement as a “blockbuster deal,” though the total dollar amount that will change hands has not been announced. The company aims to capitalize on the private “space tourism” industry with flights to the International Space Station and, eventually, its own space station.
“We are on track to enable that future by managing the first-ever private missions to the ISS as a precursor to our development of the world’s first commercial space station. SpaceX has blazed the trail with reliable, commercial human launch capability and we are thrilled to partner with them on a truly historic moment,” said Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini.
Axiom Space cited the success of SpaceX’s Demo-2, Crew-1, and Crew-2 missions as a major component in its selection of Elon Musk’s aerospace company for the privately funded missions. These missions were part of SpaceX’s contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon.
SpaceX is the first privately owned company to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil with the Demo-2 mission in May 2020. Rival Blue Origin has not yet flown astronauts on its own spacecraft, although it also has a contract with NASA under its Commercial Crew program.
Private spaceflight has been an increasingly hot topic since Dennis Tito paid $20 million for a seat on a Soyuz going to the International Space Station in 2001. He spent eight days on the station. At the time, NASA expressed concern about hosting untrained private citizens who might damage expensive components on the space station. Tito wound up spending most of his time in the Russian-built modules.
NASA appears to have relaxed its stance a little by allowing the opportunity for private crews trained by SpaceX to fly to the International Space Station, although it still insists on signing off on each one before it flies. It may help that the first couple of missions will be commanded by experienced NASA astronauts. Peggy Whitson, for instance, commanded the International Space Station’s Expedition 16 in 2007 and briefly served as the head of NASA’s Astronaut Office before signing on to command Axiom-2.
Michael López-Alegría flew on the Space Shuttle missions STS-73, STS-92, and STS-113 and also commanded the ISS’s Expedition 14. He currently serves as Axiom Space’s Vice President of Business Development.
Axiom Space’s planned space station, officially called Axiom Station, may start as an add-on for the International Space Station before becoming a self-sufficient station of its own. It plans to have Axiom Station, ready for independent operations by 2028 as a possible successor to the International Space Station.