New launch date for Axiom, the private ISS trip, caps a hectic week for space exploration

Between the NASA SLS rocket roll-out, and a revised launch date for Crew-4, the Axiom launch date being moved capped off a hectic news week for space exploration efforts.
Grant Currin
Axiom Mission 1 will dock here, at the Harmony module on the ISS.iStock / 3000ad

A private company will be sending a mission to the International Space Station for the first time.

At least, it will eventually.

On Friday, the company behind the project announced another delay. Startup Axiom Space and launch partner SpaceX "are now targeting no earlier than April 3" to launch the mission. The launch was initially slated for last October.

According to the announcement, the company says it needs the extra time "to complete final spacecraft processing ahead of the mission," according to the statement. 

Interestingly, the announcement came just as NASA's new (and giant) SLS rocket, which the agency hopes will power missions to the Moon and Mars, made its stunning launchpad debut.

Also this week: On Friday, NASA announced an April 19, 2022 launch date for the SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the ISS. The mission will take three NASA astronauts and one ESA astronaut aboard a new SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will be launched by a Falcon 9 rocket. The Crew-4 launch date had been scheduled for April 15.

Who can forget that it was only two days ago when SpaceX founder Elon Musk doubled down on a 2029 prediction to send humans to Mars.

Axiom Mission 1 will make ISS history

The mission will carry a crew of four on a 10-day trip journey to the ISS and back. The astronauts will blast off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They'll make the journey aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will be propelled into space on a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket.

The spacecraft will spend eight days aboard the ISS, which orbits Earth roughly 250 miles above the planet's surface. NASA charges a fee of $35,000 per person per day to occupy the ISS. The crew will not be the first private citizens to make a spacewalk; that distinction will go to members of the Polaris Program, which launches in November 2022.

After that mission phase is complete, they will return to Earth aboard the Crew Dragon and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

Astronauts and billionaires

The mission is a combination of professional astronauts and well-heeled space enthusiasts. Spanish-American astronaut and NASA alum Michael López-Alegría will command the mission, and Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe will serve as pilot.

American real estate investor Larry Connor and Canadian business executive Mark Pathy will also make the journey.

The company says the two billionaire passengers — who each paid a reported $55 million to join the crew — won't be playing tourist.  

The mission "is 100% not a vacation for these guys," López-Alegría told the cable business network CNBC. He says they'll spend the mission "working on flight programs" and "teaming up with various institutions, hospitals, and other research entities, as well as [doing] outreach while they're up there."

Actor Tom Cruise was initially slated to join the crew to film scenes for the first movie ever shot in space. Then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hoped the feature film would "inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists." Cruise is expected to make the journey — and shoot the movie — on a subsequent mission.

The first step in a bigger plan

This mission to the ISS is just the first of many ambitious goals the startup, founded by NASA's former program manager for the ISS and an engineer-entrepreneur who worked closely with the agency. Ultimately, the company hopes to build the first privately-owned space station. It has raised well over $150 million in private investment to make that ambition a reality. 

If the venture succeeds, the new space station could be a hub for science, R&D, tourism, and manufacturing that requires low gravity.

López-Alegría says this mission is a vital next step.

"This is really groundbreaking, and I think it's very important that the mission be successful and safe because we're really paving the way for lots of things to happen after us," he says. 

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