Hungary to pay $100 million to Axiom for astronaut mission to ISS

Hungary has budgeted $100 million to fly a Hungarian astronaut on a 30 day mission to ISS, arranged as a private mission though the American space company Axiom.

“This is a program which is being carried out with the cooperation of the American company Axiom Space and its extent is $100 million,” said [Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian foreign minister,] of the initiative. “This will end up in a 30-day-long research mission of a Hungarian astronaut with three other astronauts at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025, depending on what time NASA confirms access to the International Space Station.”

NASA has yet to award missions to Axiom Space beyond its Ax-2 mission scheduled for the spring of 2023, but is evaluating proposals for two private astronaut missions that could include an Axiom Space flight in that timeframe.

It is clear that negotiations for arranging this mission between Axiom, NASA, and Hungary are on-going. Based on Szijjártó’s description, it is possible that the Hungarian astronaut could fly on a dedicated private Axiom mission to ISS, with two other paying passengers and an Axiom commander, or fly as an extra passenger on a normal ISS crew rotation flight. Furthermore, the ’24 or ’25 launch date suggests the vehicle might not be a Dragon capsule. By that time Boeing’s Starliner should be operational, thus giving Axiom and NASA an alternative. That time frame also corresponds to about when Axiom hopes to launch and dock its own module to ISS.

Nor is Hungary the only foreign country that has signed a deal with Axiom for a manned flight. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreements as well.

All told, the biggest obstacle right now to this new market is the number of ports on ISS. It seems Axiom has a strong incentive to get its own module launched and attached to ISS as soon as possible, if only to increase the docking ports available for these flights.

Two Saudi passengers to fly on Axiom’s second commercial flight to ISS

According to one NASA official, Axiom now plans on launching two as yet unnamed Saudi passengers on AX-2, its second commercial flight to ISS scheduled to launch in May 2023 on a Dragon capsule.

The names of the two Saudis on the flight have not been released, she said, but that “we are working very hard with them on training already.” A slide for her presentation noted the two would be named after formal approval by the ISS program’s Multilateral Crew Operations Panel. That slide also stated that crew training for the mission started Oct. 17.

The Saudi Space Commission and Axiom Space separately announced Sept. 22 plans to fly two Saudi citizens on a future Axiom Space mission. However, while it was widely rumored the two would fly on Ax-2, neither announcement stated a specific mission. The Saudi statement said that one of the two people would be a woman but did not disclose how the astronauts would be selected.

Neither Axiom nor the Saudis have revealed the ticket price, though it probably runs somewhere in the range of $20 to $50 million per ticket, based on past known purchase prices by NASA and others.

Confirmed: Saudi Arabia buys two seats on next Axiom commercial flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: Saudi Arabia’s official press yesterday confirmed an earlier Reuters story that it has purchased two seats on an Axiom commercial flight to ISS, using a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The twist is that the Saudi government says one of those astronauts will be a woman, and the mission should fly in 2023. It will include Axiom’s pilot, two Saudi passengers, and a fourth passenger, all as-yet unnamed.

The mission is part of what the Saudi government calls a new astronaut training program.

Saudi Arabia buys two seats on Dragon for Axiom commercial flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: According to an as-yet unconfirmed story today by Reuters, Saudi Arabia has purchased two seats on a SpaceX Dragon capsule as part of an Axiom commercial flight to ISS.

The sources for the story are all anonymous, and no one from Axiom or SpaceX or Saudi Arabia has confirmed it. Nonetheless, it seems entirely plausible, since Saudi Arabia has made it clear it is considering such a mission and Axiom and SpaceX are eager to sell tickets.

Axiom chosen by NASA to build first Artemis moonsuits

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded Axiom the contract to build the moonsuits the astronauts will use on the first lunar landing of its Artemis program, dubbed Artemis-3.

After reviewing proposals from its two eligible spacesuit vendors, NASA selected Axiom Space for the task order, which has a base value of $228.5 million. A future task order will be competed for recurring spacesuit services to support subsequent Artemis missions.

The contract award continues NASA shift from its failed spacesuit effort — taking fourteen years and a billion dollars to produce nothing — to hiring the private sector to do it.

Previously NASA had awarded contracts to both Axiom and Collins Aerospace to build spacesuits, either for spacewalks or on the Moon. Today’s award is specifically for moonsuits for that first lunar mission.

Axiom signs deal with New Zealand

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Axiom has now signed a deal with New Zealand to permit its citizens to propose and fly experiments on future Axiom missions, both to ISS and to Axiom’s own space station, scheduled for launch beginning in ’24.

This is the fourth international commercial agreement Axiom has signed since May, with Italy, Hungary, and the UAE the signatories in the previous deals. The UAE deal also included the launch of a UAE astronaut to ISS for a six month flight.

Axiom hopes to launch its first module to ISS in ’24, with later modules eventually allowing it to undock its section to fly as an independent station when ISS is retired.

NASA imposes new rules for any private launches to ISS

NASA has added several new rules for any private launches to ISS, now requiring that each flight include at least one experienced former NASA astronaut.

From the actual procurement notice:

NASA is also in the process of finalizing details associated with a new requirement that upcoming private astronaut missions include a former flown NASA (U.S.) government astronaut as the mission commander. A former NASA astronaut provides experienced guidance for the private astronauts during pre-flight preparation through mission execution. Based on their past on-orbit and NASA experience, the PAM commander provides a link between the resident ISS expedition crew and the private astronauts and reduces risk to ISS operations and PAM/ISS safety. Specific details of the requirement will be documented in future solicitations, as well as in updated documentation and in the solicitation technical library.

The new rules also require the companies to submit their research plans twelve months before launch, as well as reserve a longer time for the private passengers to adapt to weightlessness on the station before initiating that work.

The changes appear to make sense, based on the experience of the first passenger flight of Axiom sent up to ISS earlier this year. However, their existence will likely encourage the arrival of the private space stations in order to break free from NASA’s rules.

Axiom signs deal with Hungary

Capitalism in space: Axiom yesterday announced a new agreement with Hungary aimed at launching that nation’s first astronaut to ISS.

Tthe plan is to have Axiom launch the astronaut on one of its planned tourist missions using a Dragon capsule. Whether the mission will happen before or after Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS is not clear, since no launch schedule was revealed.

Axiom now has deals with Hungary and the UAE to fly their astronauts, and deals with Italy and a UK company to add their own modules to its station. There is thus good financial pressure for it to get its station launched an operational, first as a section of ISS and then flying independently.

Axiom leases former Fry’s retail building housing fullscale mock-up of ISS

Capitalism in space: The private commercial space station company Axiom has leased a former Fry’s retail building that also happens to house the only fullscale mock-up of ISS anywhere.

Axiom Space, which has a contract with NASA to test components of its planned Axiom Station at the International Space Station, has leased the former location of Fry’s Electronics in Webster, Texas to house its engineering operations. The former big-box retail store, which closed when the national chain went out of business in 2021, is unique for its football-field-long representation of the ISS.

…Contained within a building that itself was shaped to resemble oversized space station modules, the former Fry’s ISS includes most of the real complex’s major components. The mockup features the U.S. Destiny laboratory, Quest airlock and Cupola; Russia’s Zvezda service module and Zarya functional cargo block (FGB); Japan’s Kibo laboratory; and the European Space Agency Columbus module.

The space station installation also has a replica of the Canadarm2 robotic arm, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, two models of NASA’s never-realized X-38 emergency crew return vehicle and astronauts (mannequins) in replica spacesuits. Additional oversized modules previously served as product demonstration rooms and an in-store cafe, while most of the station sat among and above aisles of computers and other devices.

Most of the mock-up hangs overhead, out of the way. In reconfiguring the building for its own use, Axiom intends to leave these mock-up units untouched. Engineers will do design work and module development of Axiom’s own station below.

Axiom’s occupation of this building is only temporary. Once its larger facility is completed in the next few years in the industrial park dubbed Houston Spaceport it will shift all operations there.

NASA awards Axiom & Collins Aerospace contracts to build spacesuits

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded separate contracts to two different companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to build spacesuits for its astronauts, either when they do spacewalks in space or when they are exploring the lunar surface.

The contract enables selected vendors to compete for task orders for missions that will provide a full suite of capabilities for NASA’s spacewalking needs during the period of performance through 2034. The indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity, milestone-based xEVAS contract has a combined maximum potential value of $3.5 billion for all task order awards. The first task orders to be competed under the contract will include the development and services for the first demonstration outside the space station in low-Earth orbit and for the Artemis III lunar landing.

Each partner has invested a significant amount of its own money into development. Partners will own the spacesuits and are encouraged to explore other non-NASA commercial applications for data and technologies they co-develop with NASA.

More information can be found in each companies’ press release, located here (Axiom) and here (Collins).

These commercial contracts replace NASA’s own failed effort to make its own Artemis spacesuits, which spent fourteen years and more than a billion dollars before being abandoned by the agency because wouldn’t be able to deliver anything on time.

The contracts also continue NASA’S transition — as recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space [pdf] — from a failed space contractor to merely being the customer buying products from the commercial sector. The result is we now have a vibrant and ever growing private space sector with products available quickly and cheaply not only for NASA, but for others. The Axiom press release illustrates these facts with this quote:

The Axiom spacesuit is key to the company’s commercial space services. This new NASA contract enables Axiom to build spacesuits that serve the company’s commercial customers and future space station goals while meeting NASA’s ISS and exploration needs.

Axiom signs deal with Italy to add an Italian module to its commercial space station

Capitalism in space: The commercial company Axiom today announced an agreement with the Italian government to begin design work on an Italian module that will eventually be added to its commercial space station, set to launch in ’24 as an addition to ISS that will eventually separate and fly independently.

The language of the press release is couched in a lot of vague statements, but this paragraph is the most revealing:

While the [agreement] is exploratory in nature, areas of cooperation outlined in the agreement include mutual definition of potential user requirements as well as technological solutions and operational concepts for an Italian module that could later be developed and integrated into the Axiom Space Station. The project could take the form of a public-private framework with the governance and business models developed over time. Other areas of cooperation include collaborative development and implementation of research supporting space exploration and technology, including advanced materials, pharmaceuticals, on-orbit manufacturing, space security, aerospace medicine, simulation and robotics, and other areas of mutual interest as determined by the two parties, as well as training and mission operations.

The deal will likely lead to Italy paying Axiom to build the module as well as provide that country support when it begins using that module for research and commercial development.

Nor is this Axiom’s only deal with other countries. Both Hungary and the UAE have signed agreements to fly in some manner with Axiom.

Axiom buys robot arm grapple points from the Canadian company MDA

Capitalism in space: For the first time, a private space station company, Axiom, has purchased 32 space station robot arm grapple points, or interfaces, from the Canadian company MDA that builds the robot arms on ISS for NASA.

The MDA interfaces aboard Axiom’s space station will also include those that allow the existing Canadarm2 on the International Space Station (ISS) to build and assemble the new Axiom Station. Once that stage is complete, MDA’s Canadarm3 interfaces will act as permanent robotic system fixture points on the outside of Axiom Station, forming the foundation for future robotic arm integration and utilization once it separates from the ISS and operates independently.

This deal means that eventually Axiom is going to purchase its own MDA-built robot arm.

Axiom signs deal with the UAE to fly one astronaut to ISS in ’23

Capitalism in space: Axiom announced today that it has signed an agreement with the United Arab Emirate (UAE) to fly a UAE astronaut to ISS in ’23 for a six month mission.

Axiom was able to put its own passenger on this flight because of a complex deal with NASA that had Axiom act as the go-between for Mark Vande Hei’s launch on a Soyuz in April ’21. Axiom brought the flight for NASA (which didn’t have the funds), and got in exchange a free seat for a passenger on a later American launch. Axiom has now sold that seat to the UAE.

The UAE in turn solidifies its space effort, with a six month manned mission to ISS.

The deal also demonstrates the priceless value of leaving ownership to American companies. Axiom made this deal to sell globally its long term space station plans, and it will use a SpaceX Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to launch it. Both companies thus make money on their products, instead of the cash going to NASA. Such profits will only encourage further sales, not only to these companies but to other competing American rocket and space station companies.

Endeavour splashes down successfully

UPDATE: Endeavour has successfully splashed down, and crews are approaching to recover the capsule.

This by the way completes Endeavour’s third manned flight into space.

Original post:
The SpaceX capsule Endeavour, carrying Axiom’s first commercial passengers, undocked with ISS last night and is scheduled to splashdown off the coast of Florida shortly.

I have embedded the live stream below, scheduled to begin shortly.
» Read more

Return of Axiom mission delayed again because of weather

Because of marginal winds at the splashdown points, SpaceX, Axiom, and NASA agreed today to delay the return of Axiom’s first private mission to ISS one more day.

The Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) crew is now targeting to undock from the International Space Station 8:55 p.m. EDT Sunday, April 23.

Weather permitting, the Ax-1 crew is targeted to close the hatch at about 6:45 p.m. Sunday, April 24, to begin the journey home in SpaceX Dragon Endeavour with splashdown off the coast of Florida approximately 1:00 p.m. Monday, April 25.

This delay will also delay the launch of NASA’s next crew to ISS on SpaceX’s new Dragon capsule, Freedom, now scheduled for launch no earlier than April 27th.

New schedule announced for landing of AX-1 crew and launch of NASA crew

Because of poor weather at the splashdown points on Earth, SpaceX and NASA have worked out a new schedule for both the landing of Axiom’s first passenger flight to ISS as well as NASA’s next launch of astronauts.

The integrated NASA, Axiom Space, and SpaceX teams have agreed on a plan for the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) crew to undock from the International Space Station at 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday, April 23, for a splashdown off the coast of Florida about 1:46 p.m. Sunday, April 24. The decision was made based on the best weather for splashdown of the first private astronaut mission to visit the International Space Station and the return trajectory required to bring the crew and the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft back to Earth safely.

…The departure of Dragon Endeavour from the space station will clear the docking port for the arrival of Dragon Freedom and NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts. The earliest potential launch opportunity for the Crew-4 mission is 4:15 a.m. Tuesday, April 26, with additional opportunities Wednesday, April 27, and Thursday, April 28. These launch opportunities are undergoing a more detailed program review to ensure they align with integrated operational timelines. The teams want to provide a two-day gap after Ax-1 return for data reviews from splashdown and to prepare for the Crew-4 launch, including the staging of recovery assets.

If the landing occurs on April 23rd as now planned, the Axiom passengers will have spent fifteen days in space, about four more than originally planned.

Axiom again cancels return of manned mission due to weather

Capitalism in space: Because of continuing poor weather on Earth, SpaceX & Axiom once again canceled the planned return of manned mission yesterday.

At the moment there is no word on when SpaceX’s Endeavour capsule will undock and bring its passengers home. Since a NASA crew is preparing for launch on Saturday, April 23rd, we should expect that return to occur beforehand.

This article from Israel about the delay, which also focuses on the flight of Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe, had this interesting tidbit:

Businessmen Stibbe, American Larry Connor of Ohio, and Canadian Mark Pathy have paid $55 million apiece for the rocket ride. The visitors’ tickets include access to all but the Russian portion of the space station. [emphasis mine]

When the Russians launched Dennis Tito and other tourists in 2000s, I am unsure if those tourists were allowed in the American portion of the station. My guess would be yes, but that would be a guess, and very easily wrong. During the two tourist flights to ISS in October and December it is also unclear if those passengers had access to the American half. Considering the competition for tourist flights that now exists, I would suspect no.

Return of first Axiom commercial crew from ISS delayed

Capitalism in space: Because of iffy weather at their planned splashdown point, SpaceX and Axiom have delayed the return of Axiom’s first commercial crew at ISS so that they will splashdown tomorrow.

Weather permitting, the four-member private astronaut crew now is targeted to undock at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, to begin the journey home with splashdown off the coast of Florida no earlier than approximately 3:24 p.m. EDT Wednesday, April 20.

If weather remains an issue, the return to Earth of Endeavour could be delayed further.

SpaceX successfully launches Axiom’s first commercial flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched the first commercial mission to ISS by the private company Axiom, carrying three passengers and one Axiom astronaut as commander.

The replay of the live stream of the launch is embedded below.

The first stage, which landed successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic, completed its fifth flight. The capsule Endeavour was making its third flight. This is also the second private manned mission launched by SpaceX.

Docking with ISS is scheduled for early tomorrow morning.

All in all, it was a perfect launch, on time and as planned. This has become so routine for SpaceX that we tend to take it for granted. We shouldn’t. Launching people into space remains one of the hardest things humans do, and will likely always be so.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

13 SpaceX
9 China
5 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 20 to 9 in the national rankings.
» Read more

ISS government partners give okay to Axiom’s first commercial crew to station

Capitalism in space: NASA announced yesterday that it as well as the other international partners for ISS have approved the crew and passengers who will fly on Axiom’s first commercial flight to the station, presently scheduled for launch on March 30, 2022, flying in SpaceX’s Endeavour capsule.

Axiom Space astronauts Michael López-Alegría, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe are prime crew members of the Ax-1 mission. López-Alegría, who was born in Spain, raised in California, and a former NASA astronaut, will serve as the mission commander. Connor, of Dayton, Ohio, will serve as pilot. Pathy, from Canada, and Stibbe, from Israel, will be mission specialists. The quartet is scheduled to spend eight days aboard the orbiting laboratory conducting science, education, and commercial activities before their return to Earth.

Because the four will be staying at this government station, they must work with NASA, which appears to be requiring them to do some research while on board. Those experiments are still “under review” though Axiom has already revealed a suite of microgravity experiments the crew will perform.

Axiom awards construction contract for building Houston space station factory

Capitalism in space: Axiom has awarded its first construction contract for building its space station factory at a Houston industrial park dubbed Spaceport Houston.

Phase I of the Houston Spaceport architecture and engineering design contract was awarded to Jacobs by Axiom Space. This 100,000 sq ft facility will be developed on a 400 acre-site, located within Ellington Airport, at the heart of Space City. Axiom Space, the privately funded space infrastructure developer intends to use this new spaceport to achieve its goal of assembling the first commercial international space station and providing access to low Earth orbit.

The choice by Axiom of Houston for this facility is, at first glance, somewhat puzzling. Once built here Axiom’s large station modules and equipment will then have to be transported to some launch facility, likely Kennedy in Florida. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to build them in Florida, close to where they will be launched?

The explanation lies in politics. Axiom’s management has many close ties to NASA and the Johnson Space Center. Furthermore, Axiom’s first modules will be docked to ISS, run by Johnson. Building in Houston will give Axiom brownie points with these government entities, which will in turn grease the wheels for anything Axiom needs to do at ISS.

Axiom & UK entertainment company propose film studio in space

Film studio balloon

Capitalism in space: Axiom has signed a deal with British-based entertainment company, Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) to add an inflatable film studio module to its private commercial space station.

Axiom Space’s modules are to be added to the ISS throughout the second half of the 2020s. SEE-1 would be added along with these components.

Once the ISS program is near its end, the plan is for the commercial segment to be detached to form an independent station.

According to SEE, the spherical studio module is planned to be about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter once fully expanded in space. Its interior is expected to provide an “unobstructed pressurized volume” that can be adapted for a range of media activities, including film production, music, sports and livestreaming events.

The graphics that accompanied the press release of the British company make me very skeptical of it. Posted on the right, it shows this inflatable module as a simple sphere, like a balloon. No manned module ever built, including the inflatable modules launched by Bigelow, has ever looked anything like this. This suggests a certain level of ignorance from the entertainment company which also suggests this project really doesn’t yet exist. The press release and agreement with Axiom seems instead merely an effort to drum up investment capital from investors who know even less.

NASA approves Axiom’s second commercial flight to ISS

In a strangely worded NASA press release, the agency announced that it has “selected” Axiom for the second private commercial manned mission to ISS.

NASA has selected Axiom Space for the second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. NASA will negotiate with Axiom on a mission order agreement for the Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) targeted to launch between fall 2022 and late spring 2023.

As at present there appears to be no other American company planning commercial manned flights to ISS, NASA wasn’t “selecting” Axiom at all. All NASA was doing was approving Axiom’s proposal to fly the mission to NASA’s space station, while confirming that Axiom will pay NASA’s greatly increased charges, raised about 700% more than the older price list.

The language of this announcement, combined with the exorbitant NASA charges, is only going to accelerate the effort of private companies, including Axiom, to build their own independent space stations. It isn’t NASA’s place to “select” any privately funded commercial flight into space, ever. That this government agency is making believe it has that right is only going to alienate the new private space industry, giving them reason to get away from NASA as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, Axiom is already scheduled to fly its first tourist flight to ISS in February 2022. The second flight that NASA “selected” today is to be followed by two more, for a total of four tourist flights. At that point, around 2024, Axiom will then launch its first module to ISS, beginning the process of relying less on NASA and leading to the undocking of Axiom’s station from ISS.

Axiom sets launch date for first private commercial manned mission to ISS

Capitalism in space: Axiom has set February 21, 2022 as the target launch date for its first private commercial manned mission to ISS, carrying one employee and three passengers for eight days.

In making the announcement the company emphasized the science research the passengers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe — will do:

The crew activities of Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) will focus on science, education, and outreach, conducting approximately 25 experiments while onboard the ISS. Critical data from studies in human research, life and physical sciences, technology demonstrations, and Earth observation will expand the applicability of microgravity research to new sectors. The crew has submitted over 100 hours of human-tended research to conduct during their stay on station.

The commander will be former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who now works for Axiom. This will be his fifth spaceflight.

New cracks discovered on a different Russian ISS module

Russian officials revealed today that their astronauts have discovered new cracks on a different Russian ISS module, dubbed Zarya.

“Superficial fissures have been found in some places on the Zarya module,” Vladimir Solovyov, chief engineer of rocket and space corporation Energia, told RIA news agency, according to Reuters. “This is bad and suggests that the fissures will begin to spread over time.” The Zarya module, also called the Functional Cargo Block, was the first component of the ISS ever launched, having blasted into orbit on Nov. 20, 1998, according to NASA.

Russians have now found what appear to be age stress fractures on both Zarya and Zvezda, the two oldest modules of ISS. More important, the Russians are finally admitting that the cracks are stress fractures, something they had earlier denied.

The need to launch new commercial American modules to ISS as quickly as possible has now become even more urgent. Axiom plans to do so, but its first module is not scheduled to arrive before ’24. It now looks increasingly that the Russian modules might not make it till then.

Thales Alenia to build first two modules of Axiom’s commercial space station

Capitalism in space: The Italian company Thales Alenia today announced it has finalized the contract to build the first two modules of Axiom’s private commercial space station, set to be docked to ISS initially but eventually to fly independent once ISS is decommissioned.

Total price for the contract is 110 million euros. According to the press release, they are targeting 2024 and 2025 for launching these modules, which will be able to house as many as eight residents.

Based on its past successful experience in building modules for the International Space Station, Thales Alenia Space is responsible for the design, development, assembly and test of the primary structure and the Micrometeoroid & Debris Protection System for the two Axiom modules.

The welding activities of the primary structure of the first module will start in September 2021, with the assembly process concluding in 2022. The first module will arrive at Axiom facilities in Houston in July 2023, where Axiom will integrate and outfit the core systems and certify it for flight prior to shipping to the launch facility.

With the launch of this station, human spaceflight in the United States will become completely independent of the federal government. Private companies will own the rockets, spacecraft, and stations, and the government will no longer have a major say on what goes on in space. The NASA bureaucracy that makes getting an experiment onto ISS cumbersome, difficult, and discouraging will be out of a job. (An example: In the 2000s American scientists studying plant growth in weightlessness ended up launching their experiments with the Russians because getting NASA approval turned out to be too difficult.)

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to get a payload or experiment onto Axiom’s station. The demand will be quite high. It just means that the decision will no longer reside with the government, but with the private companies and citizens of the United States.

As it always should have been.

Furthermore, that the demand is going to exceed the supply will mean that additional stations will be built, and quickly, because the lure of profit will be there. For example, many of the commercial medical experiments that were on the verge of paying off but were shut down after the Challenger accident in 1986 could very well be brought back to life.

The bell of freedom rings in space

The Liberty Bell
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and the
inhabitants thereof.” Photo credit: William Zhang

Not surprisingly the mainstream press today was agog with hundreds of stories about Richard Branson’s suborbital space flight yesterday on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane.

The excitement and joy over this success is certainly warranted. Back in 2004 Branson set himself the task of creating a reusable suborbital space plane he dubbed SpaceShipTwo, modeled after the suborbital plane that had won the Ansari X-Prize and intended to sell tickets so that private citizens would have the ability to go into space.

His flight yesterday completed that journey. The company he founded and is slowly selling off so that he is only a minority owner now has a vehicle that for a fee can take anyone up to heights ranging from 50 to 60 miles, well within the U.S. definition of space.

Nonetheless, if you rely on the media frenzy about this particular flight to inform you about the state of commercial space you end up having a very distorted picture of this new blossoming industry. Branson’s achievement, as great as it is, has come far too late. Had he done it a decade ago, as he had promised, he would have achieved something historic, proving what was then considered impossible, that private enterprise, using no government resources, could make space travel easy and common.

Now, however, he merely joins the many other private enterprises that are about to fly into space, with most doing it more frequently and with far greater skill and at a much grander scale than Virgin Galactic. His flight is no longer historic. It is merely one of many that is about to reshape space exploration forever.

Consider the upcoming schedule of already paid for commercial manned flights:
» Read more

Axiom strikes tourist deal with SpaceX for three more flights

Capitalism in space: Axiom today announced that it had signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to launch three more manned tourist missions following the first now scheduled for January.

Ax-1, Axiom’s historic first private ISS mission, has already been approved by NASA and targeted for launch to the ISS no earlier than Jan. 2022, also aboard Dragon as a result of a deal the companies signed in March 2020. Axiom last week revealed legendary astronaut Peggy Whitson and champion GT racer John Shoffner would serve as commander and pilot on its proposed Ax-2 mission – now confirmed to be a Dragon flight.

So, too, are Ax-3 and Ax-4.

Other than Whitson and Shoffner, the company has not revealed who will fly on those three additional flights. That it made this deal however strongly suggests that it has ample demand for seats and will fill those capsules with no problem.

The press release also reiterates the company’s space station plans. They will begin attaching their own modules to ISS in ’24, with the goal of detaching from the station in ’28 and operating as an independent entirely private station thereafter.

Axiom announces astronaut to command its second commercial manned flight

Capitalism in space: Axiom has announced that retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command its second commercial manned flight.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, in 2017). She holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space (665 days) as well as the world record for most spacewalks by a woman (10).

Joining her will be 65-year-old John Shoffner, an airplane pilot and a champion car racer.

No word yet on when this flight will take place, but expect them to aim for next year, as soon as possible after Axiom’s first ISS commercial flight in January. Scheduling will also depend on NASA, which is presently working out an ISS scheduling policy to manage the increasing number of private missions being offered.

The flight will likely use a SpaceX Dragon capsule, which means there is room for two more passengers. It is possible that those seats will be filled with the winners of Discovery Channel’s proposed reality show, but they also might be filled by actor Tom Cruise and a movie director, both of whom have expressed interest in filming scenes of a movie on ISS.

Discovery channel to launch contest to fly winner to space

Capitalism in space: The Discovery channel today announced that it is planning a contest where the winner will win an eight-day flight to ISS in partnership with the space tourism company Axiom.

The casting call on Discovery’s website says that eligibility is limited to U.S. residents or citizens, with additional requirements to be disclosed. For now, there are few other details about eligibility for hopeful astronauts applying to the Discovery show, the expected challenges entrants will face and who will serve as judges for the competition, as the series isn’t expected to start filming until next year.

It is so far unclear whether or not eligibility may include people with physical disabilities, but the casting call does include questions about your degree of impairment with physical activities. (The European Space Agency’s current astronaut process is open to candidates with physical disabilities, and the forthcoming Inspiration4 mission includes Hayley Arceneaux, who has a prosthetic limb after childhood bone cancer.)

Discovery said the series will be in eight parts and will chronicle a “grueling” process. “The series will follow each of the contestants competing for the opportunity in a variety of extreme challenges designed to test them on the attributes real astronauts need most, and as they undergo the training necessary to qualify for space flight and life on board the space station,” the channel said in a statement.

It is unclear exactly when this mission will fly, but based on its description and timing I suspect it will not be for several years, and might actually take place after Axiom installs its own module to ISS in ’24.

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