Commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space is cleared to launch the world’s first fully private mission to the International Space Station in April, but only after a critical test of NASA’s new Artemis 1 moon rocket.
The Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station passed its flight readiness exam Friday, March 25, allowing launch to proceed no earlier than April 3 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The mission will launch from from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where SpaceX launches astronaut missions for NASA on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
On board will be former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría as commander, and fare-paying passengers Larry Connor (the pilot), Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe (both mission specialists). The passengers each paid $55 million for the opportunity.
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But NASA’s Artemis 1 moon rocket, parked on nearby Launch Pad 39B, will need to complete its so-called “wet-suit rehearsal,” a vital refueling test, before Axiom Space can continue its Axe-mission. 1. This refueling test is scheduled to run from April 1 to April 3, NASA said.
“Artemis 1 has the range,” Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, said during a press conference call Friday. Regarding Artemis 1 testing, Lueders added, “our plan is to do it as soon as possible.”
The dress rehearsal will see Artemis 1 perform a simulated countdown on the pad to ensure the mission’s first Space Launch System rocket is ready for its first trip, an uncrewed flight around the moon.
Artemis 1 and Axiom 1 are parked next to each other at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Artemis 1 may be able to complete its wet dress rehearsal on the morning of April 3 at Launch Complex 39B.
Assuming the rehearsal goes as planned, Axiom 1 could lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 39A this afternoon at 1:13 p.m. EDT (5:13 p.m. GMT). But the schedule will be tight and subject to change, NASA stressed.
Lueders acknowledged that having such a planning jam is a “good problem to have” because it shows a healthy range of missions. That said, the situation could lead to backups, particularly if weather or technical issues arise.
Ax-1 has until April 7 to launch and not impact a NASA space station Crew-4 mission aboard another Space Dragon, NASA said at the same news conference. Crew-4 is set to launch on April 19.
It is also necessary to take into account the different stays in space of these vehicles and their returns. Landing is often tricky at Kennedy, which is against the Atlantic Ocean and subject to weather conditions, so NASA officials stressed that everyone will need to be flexible with launch dates and landing in the coming weeks.
But assuming all goes as planned, Ax-1 will dock with the space station on April 5 for an eight-day expedition that will be devoted to science on behalf of many institutions that have ties to astronauts. Collectively, the crew plans to devote approximately one-tenth of their time (100 hours) to scientific, medical and technical investigations.
One of the benefits of so many missions, however, is that objects in space can return to Earth a little sooner. NASA has partnered with the Ax-1 crew to bring science data and other things back to Earth, noted Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for NASA’s International Space Station.
“We are partnering with Axiom to return two of our freezers that will contain critical frozen science samples,” Weigel said. “It’s still a precious commodity for us, [and] we tend to have a backlog in orbit. They will also help us by returning a very large tank of air.”
The readiness review itself went well, with crew and gear described as ready for the opportunity.
“Human spaceflight is incredibly humble and challenging, and we always have to listen to our hardware and not focus on the schedule,” said William Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of flight construction and reliability, who held previously a senior position at NASA in manned spaceflight.
“We need to listen to the data, learn lessons from the real world and make sure we’re ready to fly safely,” Gerstenmaier added. “I think today’s review showed that this team is ready to do this and we are ready for this exciting time.”
A step towards private space stations
Ax-1 will be a proving ground for Axiom, which aims to operate its own commercial space station. The Houston-based company wants to launch a private module to the International Space Station in 2024 to begin pursuing that goal.
Axiom hopes to rapidly expand its company’s flight experience. NASA has already greenlit Ax-2, which is currently scheduled to launch from Kennedy by 2023. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is expected to command the proposed flight. Ax-2, Ax-3 and Ax-4 are all under contract to fly with SpaceX.
Ax-2 will be a short flight like Ax-1, but future missions could last up to 30 days at a time once Axiom Space’s module is on station, the company said.
“For us, it’s [Ax-1] is really the first in a series of precursor missions to flights before our station is put into orbit,” said Michael Suffredini, President and CEO of Axiom and former program manager for NASA’s International Space Station. from 2005 to 2015.
“The first module will enter orbit in the latter part of 2024, and so this really sets the stage for a new era where there are more and more opportunities for individuals and nations around the world to live and work. in the microgravity environment,” he added.