Retired NASA Astronaut to Head First Private Mission on SpaceX Crew Dragon

Michael Lopez-Alegria is slated to command SpaceX’s first private spaceflight on the Crew Dragon. The mission will apparently occur in late 2021 or early 2022, according to tweets from Michael Lopez-Alegria and Axiom Space, which has contracted with SpaceX for the flight. The mission will fly a total of four astronauts on an as-yet-unspecified mission.

Michael Lopez-Alegria previously served on four space missions for NASA, including acting as a mission specialist on three space shuttle missions. STS-73 carried the United States Microgravity Laboratory on the Space Shuttle Columbia, which conducted a series of scientific experiments in the fields of materials science, biotechnology, combustion science, and the physics of fluids. STS-92 and STS-113 delivered important hardware for installation on the International Space Station.

He also commanded Expedition 14 on the International Space Station from September 18, 2006 to April 21, 2007. During his missions, he set records for total number of spacewalks and the total amount of time spent on spacewalks. He currently works with Axiom Space as a consultant.

Details of the planned mission for Axiom are somewhat scanty, but will reuse the Crew Dragon that is currently in use for NASA’s Crew-1 mission. The Crew Dragon will remain docked to the International Space Station until May 2021. Its condition is being carefully monitored to ensure a safe reentry when its mission is over.

The Crew Dragon that is currently in use features several upgrades made possible by analysis of the similar spacecraft used for NASA’s Demo-2 mission, which was officially regarded as the final test mission for the Crew Dragon before NASA declared it operational. Most notably, the heat shield that protects the spacecraft from the heat of reentry was strengthened in areas where the Demo-2 spacecraft showed a greater than expected amount of wear and tear.

NASA also made modifications to its procedures, including adjustments of its weather rules and the addressing of a lapse that allowed privately owned boats to get closer than was safe during the recovery of the Demo-2 spacecraft.

The Crew Dragon is the first fully operational spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which partners with private organizations like SpaceX more closely than NASA has in the past. Unlike previous programs like the Space Shuttle, NASA does not own the spacecraft that it uses. It pays for rides instead and SpaceX can then reuse the hardware for private missions like Axiom’s.

Axiom has said that it will release more details of its planned mission soon. Some have speculated that it will spend a week or two in LEO with a mission plan that could resemble some of the Mercury and Gemini missions, which established some important concepts such as rendezvous and docking procedures that proved critical for the Apollo lunar landings.