Axiom Space unveils AX-1 crew for fully-private SpaceX mission to ISS

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour seen docked with the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.

NASA

A pair of investors are joining the first fully-private flight to the International Space Station — not as financial backers, but as the passengers flying along.

Houston-based start-up Axiom Space on Tuesday unveiled that real estate investor Larry Connor and Canadian investor Mark Pathy will fly on its upcoming AX-1 mission. The pair join former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who will be the commander of the flight, and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe. Connor will be the mission’s pilot, which will make him the first private spaceflight pilot.

Axiom last year signed a deal with SpaceX for the mission. Elon Musk’s company is scheduled to launch the all-private crew no earlier than January 2022, using a Crew Dragon capsule to carry them to the space station. The mission comes at a steep price — $55 million per person — but will net them an eight-day stay on the space station.

“Never has an entire crew been non-professional astronauts,” López-Alegría told CNBC. “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.”

López-Alegría flew to space four times for NASA as a professional astronaut but now works for Axiom. He will lead them through about 15 weeks of training starting in the fall, command the spacecraft and make sure the other three crew members “have a safe and productive time,” he said.

AX-1 was originally scheduled for October 2021, but slid to early 2022. Axiom wants to fly “a couple of these missions per year,” López-Alegría added, so future missions are on deck. Speculation abounded that AX-1 would feature actor Tom Cruise, as last year NASA announced that it is working with Cruise to film a movie on the ISS.

Connor has lead The Connor Group since 2003, building the Ohio-based real estate investment firm to more than $3 billion in assets. Pathy, who is set to become the 11th Canadian astronaut, is the CEO and chairman of family office fund MAVRIK Corp, as well as chairman of the board at publicly-traded Montreal-based music company Stingray Group.

Stibbe would be the second Israeli astronaut — the first was Ilan Ramon, a payload specialist on board Space Shuttle Columbia, who was killed in February 2003 when Columbia broke apart during re-entry. Stibbe was a close friend of Ramon’s.

AX-1 is ‘100% not a vacation’

The private ride to space

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft in the hangar ahead of the Crew-1 mission

SpaceX

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 crew members seated in the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft during training. From left to right: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Oliver and Mike Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

SpaceX

AX-1 is expected to use SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience” after it returns from its current Crew-1 mission. While the company regularly lands and reuses its Falcon 9 rocket boosters and its Cargo Dragon capsules, AX-1 would likely be the first time reuse is introduced to a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“I’m very comfortable with that,” López-Alegría said. “Reusability is something that has been always made sense in human spaceflight.”

An expensive endeavor

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft at the International Space Station with its nose cone open revealing its docking mechanism while approaching the station.

NASA

At $55 million a seat, it’s unsurprising that the first private space crew includes high net worth individuals like Connor and Pathy. The former said that it’s “a fair question and concern” that some might criticize private spaceflight as only for the ultra rich.

“We have lots of domestic problems and challenges, as well as international, but does that mean we should forget about the future?” Connor asked. “And, if you really think about the future, my view is that space is the next great frontier, so shouldn’t we be trying to explore and in some regards try to pioneer that?”

López-Alegría characterized the mission as “the first crack in the door toward democratization of space,” following closely on the heels of NASA’s decision in 2019 to allow private missions to visit the ISS. NASA will charge each person $35,000 per day while on board, as compensation for the services needed such as food and data usage.

“It’s not a very democratic demographic right now because of the cost of the flights, but we fully anticipate that the costs will start coming down,” López-Alegría said. “At some point we’ll be able to offer these to the man-on-the-street. It’s going to be a while but that’s the goal, and you have to start somewhere.”

For Connor’s part, he asked that critics of private spaceflight “think long term” to 25 or more years from now.

“Will it be that uncommon for people to go into space? I think and I hope the answer is going to be no. So somebody has to start it, somebody has to do the exploration and set the standards and so hopefully people will will look at it in that way,” Connor said.

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