Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command Axiom’s second fully private mission to the International Space Station. Pilot and champion GT racer John Shoffner will serve as the mission’s pilot. The mission will make use of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner currently serve as the backup crew for the Axiom-1 (AX-1) mission, which will fly in early 2022. The Crew Dragon is the first privately owned spacecraft to dock to the International Space Station with missions like Demo-2, Crew-1, and the currently active Crew-2, which ferry NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon is also the first crewed spacecraft to launch from United States soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.
Peggy Whitson’s astronaut career includes three increments, known as “Expeditions,” on the International Space Station. She became its first woman commander when she commanded Expedition 16 in 2007 and was also designated as the space station’s first Science Officer. Over the course of her three Expeditions, she conducted ten EVAs, or “spacewalks,” to conduct maintenance and support continued construction of the International Space Station. She accumulated more than 60 hours of EVA time, which as of May 2017, put her at third place for most total EVA time. Whitson also served as the chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office from 2009 to 2012.
“I’m thrilled to get to fly to space again and lead one of the first of these pioneering missions, marking a new era of human spaceflight,” Whitson said in a press release issued by Axiom Space.
Besides being a pilot and GT racer, John Shoffner also works in life science research in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has expressed an interest in the life science research being conducted on the International Space Station. As part of the mission, he will work on a project that could assist with translating terrestrial single-cell genomic methods to an orbital science process as part of a collaboration with a California-based biological product development firm named 10x Genomics.
“Growing up, I closely followed every NASA flight of Gemini and Apollo. Now to experience astronaut training teamed with Peggy is an honor. I am also excited about our upcoming work with 10x Genomics in this first step towards making their single-cell technologies available to researchers in a microgravity environment. I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low-Earth orbit,” he said in the press release.
Whitson and Shoffner are currently conducting training for the mission, including helping develop the protocols for the project for 10x Genomics, as well as studying International Space Station systems and spacecraft operations for the Crew Dragon.
Axiom plans to compete for possible slots to send private missions to the International Space Station as frequently as once every six months, pending NASA approval and as ISS traffic allows. The ISS ports sometimes get busy enough that the crew has to move crewed spacecraft from one port to the other, as the Crew-1 astronauts had to do for their Crew Dragon to make room for Crew-2.
Private missions on the Crew Dragon are made possible because NASA’s contracts with SpaceX do not demand the exclusive use of hardware developed for recent NASA programs like Commercial Crew. Other private missions using the Crew Dragon and possible derivatives of SpaceX’s “crew-rated” spacecraft include Inspiration4, which was organized by Sian Proctor as a way to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and promote his E-commerce software package, Shift4Shop. Inspiration4 recently finalized its crew of 4 people, including Proctor.
Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and movie director Doug Liman has also booked a ride to the International Space Station to film footage “on location” for a movie project. The mission is expected to launch in October 2021. Previously, such a project would have required a ride on a jet plane that has been specially modified to simulate weightlessness for brief periods using parabolic arcs.
These missions and the newly announced Axiom-2 mission are signs of growing interest in privatized space flight. Several aerospace companies such as SpaceX and competitors Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have shown interest in capitalizing on this demand by developing spacecraft capable of sending private passengers, as well as professional astronauts like Peggy Whitson who represent private companies like Axiom Space, into space.