The second Axiom Space mission, AX-2, launched to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket at 5:37 pm ET on May 21, 2023. AX-2 is expected to dock to the space station on May 22 to continue preparations for the arrival of Axiom Space’s first inflatable modules.
Axiom Space plans to start launching the inflatable modules as early as 2025. When the International Space Station is retired, it will spin the modules off into one of the first privately owned space stations. When the International Space Station is retired in the 2030s, NASA could become one of several paying customers that rent space on private space stations like Axiom Space’s while it continues work on the Lunar Gateway.
Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson is commanding AX-2. Peggy Whitson previously served on three crew rotations. During Expedition 5 in June through December 2002, Whitson installed important components for the International Space Station, including the Mobile Base System, the P1 and S1 truss segments, and a micrometeoroid shield for the Zvezda Service Module.
Whitson also commanded Expedition 16 from October 2007 to April 2008, during which she oversaw the installation of the Harmony connecting node, the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo logistics pressurized module and the Canadian Space Agency’s Dextre robot. She conducted five EVAs to support this expansion of the International Space Station.
Whitson’s final long-duration mission on the International Space Station was Expedition 50/51 from November 2016 to September 2017. During this long stay on the space station, she helped conduct hundreds of experiments on the International Space Station. She retired from NASA with a total of 665 days in space.
The AX-2 mission also includes crew members Rayyanah Barnawi, Ali AlQarni, and John Shoffner. Shoffner is an American businessman who has started businesses in the telecom and hardware industries. Saudi Arabia is sponsoring Barnawi’s and AlQarni’s presence on the AX-2 mission. Rayyanah Barnawi is a stem cell researcher who will be working with stem cells. The stem cells are also being delivered on AX-2 as one of 20 biomedical experiments that the crew plans to conduct. Alik AlQarni is a Saudi Arabian fighter pilot.
Axiom Space brokered the deal with Shoffner and the Saudi Arabian government as a way to get in on the market for private spaceflight and other countries that have not developed their own capacity for crewed spaceflight. Since Dennis Tito became the first “space tourist” by paying Russia for a ride to the International Space Station in 2001, several private citizens have visited the space station. Until SpaceX began flying the Crew Dragon, Russia had a monopoly on the market for private spaceflight. However, SpaceX now has experience in this market with flights like the Axiom Space series of flights and the separate orbital mission Inspiration4.
Paid trips to the International Space Station were initially controversial due to the risk of relatively untrained parties damaging valuable equipment on the space station, leading indirectly to NASA making a rule that any private missions to the ISS that launch from U.S. soil have to be commanded by a veteran astronaut like Peggy Whitson. The space station partner countries also have rules such as certain areas being off-limits for private crews, including the airlocks used as a staging area for EVAs.
Axiom Space has an expanded contract with SpaceX to launch a total of four flights to the International Space Station. AX-1 already launched in April 2022 and splashed down after an extended stay on the ISS due to poor weather at the splashdown site.