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SpaceX signs bulk deal for three private Crew Dragon missions

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Mission manager Axiom Space adds three Crew Dragon capsules to its lineup of private flights to the ISS

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is seen docked to the ISS in April, 2021 after a port relocation manuever with its crew of four Crew-1 astronauts on board.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will launch three more private astronaut missions tentatively through 2023 under a bulk deal signed this week with mission manager Axiom Space, the companies announced on Wednesday. Though specific terms weren’t disclosed, it marks one of the biggest deals yet in the burgeoning private spaceflight industry and makes for a busy ISS schedule for the next few years.

The three missions, paced roughly six months apart, will come after Axiom’s first ride on Crew Dragon in January next year flying an “all-civilian” crew to the International Space Station for eight days. Ax-2, the second mission, will be led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. Crews for Ax-3 and 4 haven’t been announced yet. All flights will involve similar stays on the ISS.

Axiom declined to disclose the value of the agreement, which had been in the works for months and was officially signed with SpaceX in recent weeks. SpaceX didn’t return an email seeking comment. The timing and parameters of missions are subject to approval from NASA, which manages the ISS schedule, as well as a panel of NASA’s international space station partners.

“A new era in human spaceflight is here,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “The growing partnership between Axiom and SpaceX will enable more opportunities for more humans in space on the road to making humanity multiplanetary,” SpaceX said of the Axiom deal on its website, referring to its founder Elon Musk’s main goal of colonizing Mars.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule sits mounted atop a Falcon 9 rocket on the company’s 39A launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Image: NASA / Joel Kowsky

For Houston-based Axiom, founded in 2016 by veteran NASA ISS manager Mike Suffredini, these initial Crew Dragon treks to the space station will serve as “precursor missions” ahead of the company’s core project of building commercial ISS modules, the first of which is planned for installation in 2024. Suffredini, Axiom’s CEO, said these missions keep the company on track for those commercial space station plans.

“All four crews will receive combined commercial astronaut training from NASA and SpaceX, with SpaceX providing training on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, emergency preparedness training, spacesuit and spacecraft ingress and egress exercises, as well as partial and full simulations,” SpaceX’s statement said.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was developed under a mix of private funds and a roughly $3 billion NASA contract in the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which was started to revive America’s ability to launch crews to space from US soil after a decade-long dependence on Russian rockets. SpaceX has launched three crews of government astronauts under that program since May 2020, with four more planned in the future. Boeing, the second company under that program, is further behind with its Starliner capsule, which is slated to fly its first astronaut crew by year’s end.

Adding four private Axiom-arranged Crew Dragon missions on top of SpaceX’s commercial crew cadence would make for a busy schedule for the ISS, which only has two docking ports that are compatible with Crew Dragon, a cargo-only version of Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s Starliner. With Starliner flights planned ahead, and NASA stating it allows only two private astronaut flights to the ISS per year, it’s unclear whether all four Axiom missions would get approved for flight through 2023. NASA didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

“We continue to be extremely busy onboard the International Space Station,” NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said Wednesday during a press conference on SpaceX’s cargo mission launching tomorrow. “NASA’s partnership with the commercial industry is changing the way we look at low Earth orbit.”