Governments to be major customers of future Axiom Space private astronaut missions (Image Credit: Space News)
WASHINGTON — Axiom Space says the customers for its upcoming private astronaut missions to the International Space Station are dominated by governments rather than individuals.
In a call with reporters Jan. 30, Axiom Space executives said they were “pretty heavy into training” the crew for the Ax-2, the company’s second mission to the station, tentatively scheduled to launch in May. That includes training at station-related facilities in Japan and Europe, as well as at the Johnson Space Center and SpaceX’s headquarters in California for the Crew Dragon spacecraft the mission will use.
That mission will be commanded by Peggy Whitson, an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut, with an Axiom customer, John Shoffner, serving as pilot. While NASA announced Jan. 20 that the ISS partners had approved the full four-person crew for Ax-2, neither the agency nor Axiom have yet revealed the names of the other two people flying on the mission.
That is the decision of the customer, said Michael Suffredini, chief executive of Axiom. “We work very hard to meet their needs, and they have chosen to wait a little while to announce their crew,” he said. “I think in the next week or two there will be an announcement of the specific individuals.”
The two are widely believed to be astronauts from Saudi Arabia as part of an agreement that the Saudi Space Commission signed with Axiom Space in September 2022. A NASA official speaking at an advisory committee meeting in November said the candidate Saudi astronauts had started training for the mission.
Axiom Space has not announced customers for missions beyond Ax-2, but Suffredini said upcoming missions would primarily have governments, rather than individuals, as customers. “I expect that Ax-3 will be largely a country customer kind of flight with our professional astronaut,” he said, which will be repeated on Ax-4. “I think that, between those two flights, maybe one private individual will fly.”
He did not disclose which countries might fly astronauts on those missions, although he said later than Ax-4 may include a country that has previously flown to the station. Axiom Space announced in September an agreement with the Turkish Space Agency to fly a Turkish astronaut on a future Axiom mission but did not disclose a schedule. At the European Space Agency ministerial conference in November, Hungary’s foreign minister said the country was working to select an astronaut to fly to the ISS on an Axiom mission in late 2024 or early 2025.
Axiom still requires formal NASA approval for missions beyond Ax-2. NASA requested proposals in September for two private astronaut missions flying between late 2023 and the end of 2024. Suffredini said he expects NASA to announce its plans for those missions soon.
Those future missions will have to comply with a NASA requirement announced last August that private astronaut missions be commanded by a former NASA astronaut with flight experience. Axiom had already announced Whitson as commander of Ax-2, and its first private astronaut mission to the station, Ax-1 in April 2022, was led by another former astronaut, Michael López-Alegría.
While Axiom officials had suggested before Ax-1 that later missions might fly customers only, Suffredini said the company agreed with NASA about having a professional astronaut on board. “We agree that on short-duration flights, particularly with astronauts who have not been trained as professional astronauts, that is the right way to fly,” he said.
He declined to say if Axiom would hire additional former NASA astronauts beyond López-Alegría and Whitson for missions beyond Ax-2. “We will have the right professional astronauts available to fly the flights that require it.”
During a panel discussion Jan. 31 at the 18th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, that included all four Ax-1 astronauts, López-Alegría said his flight opportunity came after he joined Axiom to support its efforts to develop a private space station. “When we started looking for clients, they expressed an interest that they wanted somebody along who had been there before, and NASA said the same thing,” he recalled of planning for the first private astronaut mission. “When we looked around the room, I was the only one who fit that description.”
One of his Ax-1 crewmates, Mark Pathy, suggested on the panel that López-Alegría would fly again on a future private astronaut mission. “We’re all keen to go back to space. We’re all jealous of Mike that he’s going back.”