Axiom announces crew for first private ISS mission

Space

WASHINGTON — A commercial Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station early next year chartered by Axiom Space will carry four private astronauts — but not a superstar actor.

Axiom Space revealed Jan. 26 the crew of its first mission to the ISS, called Ax-1 and scheduled for launch no earlier than January 2022. The flight is the first in a series planned by the company, which seeks to later add commercial modules to the ISS as a precursor to a stand-alone space station.

The Ax-1 mission will be commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space. Joining him will be three customers: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe, who will spend eight days on the station.

“We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I’m glad to say we’ve done that with this group,” Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space, said in a statement.

Connor is an American entrepreneur best known as managing partner of The Connor Group, a real estate investment firm, and is also a pilot and race car driver. Pathy is a Canadian who is chief executive of Mavrik, an investment firm, as well as serves as chairman of Stingray Group, a media and technology company. Stibbe is a former Israeli Air Force pilot who is now the founding partner of Vital Capital, an “impact investment” fund.

For the Ax-1 mission, Pathy and Stibbe will be designated mission specialists while Connor will be pilot. Axiom spokesperson Beau Holder said that, as pilot, Connor will get additional training on the operations of the spacecraft to support López-Alegría. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will back up López-Alegría, while another commercial astronaut, John Shoffner, will train as a backup.

Axiom did not disclose the price the three commercial astronauts paid to be on the Ax-1 mission, including whether there was any difference in price among them. Industry sources estimate the per-person price at around $55 million.

Stibbe’s inclusion on the crew was announced in November by the Israeli government, which intends to work with him on activities during the mission. He will be the second Israeli to go to space, after Ilan Ramon, who was part of the ill-fated STS-107 shuttle mission in 2003.

“The government will use his time in the space station to do scientific and engineering experiments as well as many educational programs,” Avi Blasberger, director of the Israeli Space Agency, said in remarks Jan. 26 at the 16th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference.

At a session later in the conference, Stibbe said he had heard about the opportunity to fly on the mission last year from another former NASA astronaut, Garrett Reisman. “When Garrett Reisman just threw the idea into the air six months ago, I said, ‘Why not?’ And here I am already, one year before takeoff,” he said.

There had been widespread speculation for months that the other two seats would be occupied by actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman. Entertainment media reported last year that Cruise and Liman were planning to film a movie on the station, and NASA confirmed it was working with Cruise on a movie project on the ISS of some kind. However, in recent months Cruise appeared focused on other film projects, and there had been few updates on the proposed movie.

Connor and Pathy, like Stibbe, said they will conduct research and educational activities while on the station. “That’s what I’m excited about,” Connor said in a statement. “It’s about doing things that can only be done in space: experiments in microgravity. It’s a unique way to help humankind.”

Those plans could help preempt criticism of the flight as merely tourism. Stibbe has already faced criticism in Israel since the November announcement, in part because of media reports that a significant source of his wealth came from arms sales.

When Axiom discussed plans for the mission last year, it anticipated flying it in October 2021, a date that has now slipped at least three months. Holder said that the schedule of flight opportunities to the ISS, which involves deconflicting schedules with other spacecraft visiting the station, caused the delay.

Axiom envisions Ax-1 as the first in a series, pending customer interest and NASA approvals, with the potential of flying two per year. NASA, as part of a low Earth orbit commercialization strategy announced in 2019, said it would allow up to two private astronaut missions to the station each year.

The Ax-1 crew has the potential to be the first private astronauts to go to the station since Guy Laliberté in 2009. He was the last in a series of private astronauts who flew with Space Adventures, buying extra seats on Soyuz missions.

However, two Soyuz missions could deliver private astronauts to the station before Ax-1. Roscosmos has discussed flying an actress on a Soyuz crew rotation flight in October 2021 as part of a proposal to film a movie on the station, an effort announced after reports of Cruise’s interest in shooting a movie there. The Russian space agency Roscosmos has not confirmed those plans.

Space Adventures announced in 2019 it would purchase a dedicated Soyuz flight to the ISS, carrying two customers and one professional astronaut, for a brief stay. That mission, Soyuz MS-20, is tentatively scheduled for launch in December, but neither Space Adventures nor Roscosmos has yet announced who will fly on that mission.

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