Private space habitat company Axiom is revealing the science that the company’s first private astronauts will do when they travel to the International Space Station (ISS) next year. The research experiments include working with stem cells to gauge how space impacts aging as well as performing a two-way 3D hologram projection demonstration using a Microsoft HoloLens.
These and other experiments will be performed by four crew members whom Axiom plans to send to the ISS in February 2022, part of the company’s Ax-1 mission. The crew will fly to the space station inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that Axiom purchased in March 2020. It’s actually the first of many SpaceX Crew Dragon flights that Axiom bought from SpaceX in order to send people back and forth to the ISS.
The four fliers on board Ax-1 include Michael López-Alegría, the mission’s commander and a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom, along with three paying customers. Larry Connor, an American nonprofit activist investor; Mark Pathy, a Canadian investor; and Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli investor and former Israeli fighter pilot, each paid $55 million to ride on board Ax-1. They are also the ones who helped to decide on the 25 research experiments they’ll be doing while on board the mission.
“These crew don’t really want a whole lot of spare time,” Christian Maender, director of in-space manufacturing and research at Axiom Space, tells The Verge. “They’re planning on filling most of their time with science, believe it or not. For the little time that they are going to create for themselves, they just expressed an interest in taking opportunities to take in the views a little bit.”
Ax-1 is set to launch on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets in February, spending two days in orbit while reaching the International Space Station. Once the crew has docked with the orbiting lab, they’ll spend eight days on board, conducting their research alongside the NASA astronauts, German astronaut, and Russian cosmonauts currently living on the ISS. The research should take up to 100 hours to complete.
Connor is the one who will be working with stem cells in coordination with the Mayo Clinic, studying how space travel affects heart health and senescent cells — aged cells that no longer divide and grow. Pathy, meanwhile, has up to 12 experiments on his plate, including a hologram demonstration. NASA has already demonstrated one-way “holoportation” bringing up the image of someone on the ground onto the space station, using a HoloLens. But Pathy will show that a two-way dialogue is possible, sending his image down to Earth while the image of the person he is talking to comes to him on the station.
“What it really plays into is opportunities for more longer duration spaceflight and more deep spaceflight,” Maender says, “where you are really talking about wanting to create a human connection between your crew — no matter where they’re traveling — and back to someone on the planet.”
Stibbe will be taking part in his own mission called Rakia, named “after the dome (atmosphere) created by God on the second day after the firmament, which protects life on Earth,” according to Axiom. The goal of his research is to “connect the younger generation in Israel” by doing science and artistic endeavors, with experiments drawing on disciplines ranging from astrophysics to neuroscience. López-Alegría will help out with all of this research, as well as serve as a human subject for some of the experiments aimed at learning more about how space impacts the body.
Axiom considers Ax-1 the first of many missions. The company was founded in 2016 by Mike Suffredini, the former ISS program manager at NASA, and it has the ultimate goal of building private space stations that various customers can visit to do research. Axiom holds a contract with NASA to attach a module to the ISS as early as 2024, testing out the company’s habitat technology. That mission is part of a larger goal to expand to a free-flying space station called “Axiom Station.”
With that larger target in mind, Ax-1 and the follow-up SpaceX Crew Dragon missions will all help Axiom better understand how to get people to space safely and what kinds of work they can do in orbit when they get there. “It’s a demonstration mission for us in a lot of ways,” says Maender. “Demonstrating how we can open up more opportunities for research in microgravity beyond what can be done on the on the ISS today.”