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Axiom names first private crew paying $55 million for a trip to the ISS

A $55 million orbital vacation

An American real estate investor, a Canadian investor, and a former Israeli Air Force pilot are paying $55 million each to be part of the first fully private astronaut crew to journey to the International Space Station. The trio will hitch a ride on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule early next year, with a veteran NASA astronaut as the commander.

The Ax-1 mission, arranged by Houston, Texas-based space tourism company Axiom Space, is a watershed moment for the space industry as companies race to make space travel more accessible to private customers instead of governments. Private citizens have trekked to the space station in the past, but the Ax-1 mission marks the first to use a commercially built astronaut capsule: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which flew its first two crews to the ISS last year.

“As the first fully private mission to go to the ISS, we feel an enormous responsibility to do it well,” Michael López-Alegría, a veteran astronaut and the mission’s commander, told The Verge on Tuesday. “We realize that this is the trend-setter, the bar-setter for the future, and so our goal is to really exceed all expectations.”

Larry Connor, an entrepreneur and nonprofit activist investor; Mark Pathy, the Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Eytan Stibbe, the former Israeli fighter pilot and an impact investor, were revealed by Axiom on Tuesday morning as the company’s inaugural crew. Connor, 71, is president of The Connor Group, a luxury real estate investment firm based in Ohio. He’d become the second-oldest person to fly to space after John Glenn, who flew the US space shuttle Discovery at 77 years old.

The crew’s flight to the space station, an orbital laboratory some 250 miles above Earth, will take two days. They’ll then spend about eight days aboard the station’s US segment, where they’ll take part “in research and philanthropic projects,” Axiom said in a statement. Living alongside working astronauts from the US, Russia, and likely Germany, the private crew members will roll out sleeping bags somewhere on the station.

“There aren’t any astronaut crew quarters for us, which is fine. Sleeping in Zero-G is pretty much the same wherever you are once you close your eyes,” López-Alegría said.

NASA updated its policies in 2019 to allow private astronaut flights to the ISS as part of a broader push to encourage commercial opportunities in space. The agency had previously opposed private visits to the ISS on US spacecraft. Seven private citizens flew to the station as wealthy tourists on separate missions in the early 2000s aboard Russia’s Soyuz vehicles.

Private stays on the space station will have a hefty price tag, according to NASA’s 2019 announcement. It’ll cost $11,250 per astronaut per day to use the life support systems and toilet, $22,500 per day for all necessary crew supplies (like food, air, medical supplies, and more), and $42 per kilowatt-hour for power. That tallies to a nightly rate of about $35,000 per person, which, for the four crew members on the Ax-1 mission — including Commander López-Alegría — totals to $1.1 million for an eight-night stay.

iss nasa
The International Space Station in low-Earth orbit.
Image: NASA

Those nightly costs are included in the $55 million price the private astronauts are already paying, Axiom says. The company bills itself as a “turnkey, full-service mission provider that interfaces with all other parties (e.g. NASA) for” the astronauts, an Axiom spokesman said. “Any and all necessary costs are part of Axiom’s ticket price.”

The Ax-1 mission will have to be approved by the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel, the space station’s managing body of partner countries that includes the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, and others. That approval process kicked off today, López-Alegría said. “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the background and qualifications of the crew are more than adequate to be accepted by the MCOP, so I feel good about that,” he added.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, an acorn-shaped pod with seats for seven, was approved last year by NASA under its Commercial Crew Program to fly humans to the space station. Under that roughly $4.5 billion program, SpaceX developed Crew Dragon alongside its rival Boeing, which is about a year away from certifying its Starliner capsule for human flights. Both companies have contracts with NASA to fly six missions carrying US astronauts to space.

The Ax-1 mission was announced early last year. It is the second space tourism effort for SpaceX, which announced around the same time that it is also working with space tourism company Space Adventures to send up to four private citizens into orbit around the Earth sometime in 2022.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station carrying three US astronauts and a Japanese astronaut on November 17th, 2020.
Image: NASA

Space tourism in recent years has sparked a wave of interest from the ultra-wealthy and investors as a growing field of space companies prove out hardware and ramp up uncrewed test flights in and around space. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, now the richest person in the world, has made normalizing space travel and colonizing Mars SpaceX’s top priority. Billionaire businessman Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which offers groups of four a few minutes of weightlessness in its massive spaceplane for a few hundred thousand dollars, became the first publicly traded space tourism company in 2019. And billionaire Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ space firm Blue Origin will soon offer similar suborbital experiences with its vertically launched New Shepard rocket.

Axiom’s chief executive Mike Suffredini co-founded the company in 2016 after spending 10 years as NASA’s ISS program manager. Already, the company is building its own modules called “Axiom Station” designed to attach to the ISS, offering room for science experiments and more tourists. Ax-1 “is just the first of several Axiom Space crews,” he said in a statement.

López-Alegría, who has flown four times to space as a NASA astronaut, said he’s met with Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe a few times at SpaceX’s California headquarters and in Florida during SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission last year. He’ll be in charge of training them in person beginning a few months prior to the flight.

“They’re very individual, but they all have a very common thread, and that is they really want this to be a successful mission that paves the way for future private astronaut missions,” López-Alegría said. “It’s a good crew.”