NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson working onboard the International Space Station in August 2017.
Jack Fischer / NASA
Axiom Space on Tuesday announced that retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and auto racer John Shoffner will lead the company’s second private spaceflight to the International Space Station, tentatively scheduled for the second half of 2022.
The pair will fly Axiom’s Ax-2 mission for an eight-day stay on the ISS, with Whitson as the commander and Shoffner as the pilot.
Currently Axiom is working toward its Ax-1 mission, which is scheduled to launch in January 2022 using a SpaceX rocket and capsule to reach the ISS.
Whitson left NASA in 2018 and began consulting for Axiom a little over a year ago. She set multiple historic firsts while with the space agency, including the U.S. record for cumulative time spent in space at 665 days, the first female commander of the ISS in 2007, and the first female and non-military chief of NASA’s astronaut office.
She told CNBC that she looks forward to returning to orbit, especially since her experience helps better inform what Axiom is working toward as a private company.
“One thing that an astronaut always tries to figure out is: ‘How do I get back?'” Whitson said.
She added that that space is now on “a precipice of change,” going from the realm of government organizations to one of the private sector for companies like Axiom.
“I think commercial space operations are required for the infrastructure to be built in low Earth orbit,” Whitson said.
Peggy Whitson, left, and John Shoffner
Shoffner, on the other hand, joins Ax-2 without prior spaceflight experience – but brings years of experience in motorsports and piloting in air shows, fused with a lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. He says he first heard of Axiom about a year and a half ago and describes himself as a “huge space fan.”
“In my first early meetings with Axiom, I was introduced to Peggy Whitson – who is a revered NASA astronaut,” Shoffner said. “Having a chance to fly with her is going to be absolutely incredible.”
Before forming his motorsports team J2-Racing with his wife Janine, Shoffner was a businessman. He worked his way up through Kentucky-based telecommunications manufacturer Dura-Line over a 21-year career, until he retired as president in 1996.
“We’re very excited to be flying together, and I am really thrilled because John seems just like an incredibly high-caliber person … he’s got the right stuff to do it,” Whitson said. “I think he has the right interpersonal skills that will make it fun to fly with – and I’ve learned over my experiences in space that is not when you fly, but who you fly with that’s most important.”
Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience” approaches the International Space Station in orbit.
While the Ax-1 mission will utilize SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, the company said that the launch vehicle and spacecraft for Ax-2 has not yet been finalized. Axiom aims to fly these private missions to the ISS every six to seven months, but that is subject to space station traffic and windows in NASA’s schedule for private flights.
Whitson and Shoffner have been training alongside the Ax-1 crew, in the meantime, as the pair are serving as back-ups for that mission’s commander Michael López-Alegría and pilot Larry Connor.
Axiom declined to disclose financial details about the Ax-2 mission’s expected total cost. A SpaceX crew launch costs NASA about $55 million per seat, so the price for these private missions is expected to be similarly high.
In addition to training for Ax-2, Whitson and Shoffner are working with California-based biotechnology company 10x Genomics to perform research in orbit on single-cell genomic methods.
“Their products are used by all the top 100 research facilities around the world, researchers in orbit have been looking for the same capabilities,” Shoffner said of 10x Genomics.
The company’s research will look to help answer questions such as how humans live in space long-term. Whitson noted that the the Ax-2 mission’s shorter duration will get the research back to 10x Genomics faster.
“Accessibility is one of the advantages of flying it with us, as it can get to orbit sooner and be tested sooner,” Whitson said.
The view from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour of the International Space Station, as well as the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience, as the capsule approached to dock on April 24, 2021.