SpaceX to launch 3rd private astronaut mission to the ISS for Axiom Space on Jan. 9 (Image Credit: Space.com)
Axiom Space says it hopes SpaceX’s private astronaut missions will become cheaper in the future.
Houston-based Axiom plans to launch its third mission, Ax-3, on Jan. 9, 2024 to the International Space Station using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Four commercial astronauts will ride on board. Axiom Space does not disclose per-seat pricing, but estimates pegged April 2022’s Ax-1 mission, which SpaceX also launched, at $55 million per astronaut.
Axiom’s president, Matt Ondler, said during a call with reporters Wednesday (Dec. 13) that Ax-3 is “not cheaper” than Ax-1 was — but he hopes future missions may be.
“The driving cost, of course, is the launch provider, [but] I think SpaceX gets more and more efficient all the time with their operations,” he said.
“We’re hopeful that it gets easier and easier to put humans in space,” continued Ondler. “I think right now, in this time period, it is still very complicated and difficult and arduous to put humans in space and have the right safety in place. But we’re hopeful in the future — as more and more launch providers come online and we get better and better at putting them into space — those launch costs go down.”
SpaceX is by far the dominant launch provider in the world, launching more than 90 crewed and uncrewed orbital missions in 2023 already. Elon Musk’s company is therefore responsible for roughly half of global launch activity this year (though most SpaceX launches have been dedicated to building out the company’s Starlink satellite-internet constellation).
Boeing’s Starliner, however, may be ready to bring astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2024, following years of delays. That said, it will take years for other systems to be available for space station missions.
Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane has been approved for uncrewed missions to the ISS later in the decade, but it may also carry astronauts one day. India is developing its own crewed capability (which may or may not be available for ISS), while the European Space Agency is eager to launch its own astronauts at some point.
Axiom Space is unlikely to use Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for ISS missions due to international difficulties, as Russia’s unsanctioned invasion of Ukraine in 2022 continues. (Most international spaceflight partnerships with Russia have vanished except for ISS agency work, which continues for larger policy reasons.)
As for Ax-3: The crew will be led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, a dual U.S.-Spanish citizen who also commanded Ax-1 in 2022 and now serves as the company’s chief astronaut. (All private crewed missions to the ISS need a retired NASA astronaut at the helm, per agency rules.)
Joining López-Alegría will be Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, who flew to suborbital space on Virgin Galactic‘s first commercial launch in June; Marcus Wandt of Sweden, a European Space Agency project astronaut; and Turkey’s first citizen in space, Alper Gezeravcı. It will be López-Alegría’s sixth mission, Villadei’s second and the first for Wandt and Gezeravcı.
Ax-1 crew members required assistance from the ISS agency astronauts to complete all of that mission’s objectives. López-Alegría, however, emphasized in Wednesday’s call that lessons learned since April 2022 should allow Ax-3 to complete its 30 assigned experiments in two weeks. The Ax-3 crew has exceeded their training hours, including all safety procedures, and the training has shifted to put more emphasis on the tools the crew uses every day.
López-Alegría also paid tribute to a two-week expedition the crew had with the National Outdoor Leadership School, an entity that NASA also uses for astronaut training in wilderness environments akin to the isolated conditions one encounters in space. “That has also helped solidify the camaraderie within the team,” he said.
Both Axiom and NASA representatives said the company’s space excursions are helping prepare for future missions with agency astronauts and commercial astronauts working alongside each other. Axiom is planning to put a set of private modules on the ISS, starting in 2026, that will eventually detach to create a free-flying space station.
“The more we do these kinds of missions aboard the space station, the clearer the picture becomes of how NASA and industry will work together,” said NASA’s Angela Hart, manager of the agency’s commercial low Earth orbit development program.
NASA funded three coalitions in December 2021 to encourage the development of commercial space stations that could succeed the ISS, which is now expected to retire at the end of 2030. (Since 2021, Northrop Grumman stopped its independent project to join the private Starlab station concept.) NASA has said repeatedly that it is doing its best to avoid any gap for low-Earth orbit operations after the ISS’ retirement.
NASA’s most recent update on the commercial space stations, issued on Monday (Dec. 11), included this information about potential future private outposts:
- The first Axiom module, called Axiom Hab One, will have a critical design review in 2024. “During this review, NASA will assess the maturity of the Axiom Space design and provide feedback necessary to ensure safe operations when it is attached to the International Space Station,” agency officials wrote.
- The Blue Origin-led Orbital Reef space station “recently completed tests for a window system and a structural demonstration” to see how designs would perform in a pressurized environment in orbit.
- Starlab now includes partner companies such as Nanoracks, Voyager Space, Airbus and Northrop Grumman. The envisioned space complex has finished a system definition review and is preparing for the preliminary design review. Technicians also reported progress for a laser link demonstration to boost data transfer rates in space, as well as an “alternative urine processor demonstration” that will recover potable water from urine, similar to current ISS systems.
NASA is also preparing a request for proposals for space station services in 2025, following on from an industry request for information issued in October 2023 “on proposed requirements for future destination services,” Hart said. Company collaborations are also forthcoming in “space technologies that will be needed in the commercial low Earth orbit ecosystem,” such as new transportation solutions.
As for Axiom’s missions, NASA and the company have agreed to an Ax-4 mission, and the agency expects “a regular cadence of private astronaut missions through the life of the ISS,” Hart said.