Axiom and SpaceX launch the third crewed mission to the space station

Zoom in / A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center to begin the Ax-3 commercial crew mission.

Stephen Clark/Ars Technica

For the third time, an entirely private crew heads to the International Space Station. The four-man team blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday, beginning a 36-hour chase for the orbiting research laboratory. Docking is scheduled for Saturday morning.

The two-week mission is being managed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which flies private astronaut missions to the International Space Station as a stepping stone toward building a fully commercial space station in low Earth orbit by the end of this decade.

The third Axiom mission, called Ax-3, launched at 4:49 PM EDT (21:49 UTC) on Thursday. The four astronauts were strapped into their seats inside SpaceX's Dragon Freedom spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. This is the 12th time SpaceX has launched a crewed spaceflight mission, and could be the first of five crewed Dragon missions this year.

The Falcon 9 rocket headed northeast from Kennedy Space Center to align with the flight path of the International Space Station. After blasting through the cloud cover, the rocket's reusable first stage separated two and a half minutes after liftoff to begin its descent back to Cape Canaveral for landing. The upper stage ignited a single engine to carry the Dragon capsule into orbit.

There is no retirement party

In remarks broadcast on the ground shortly after launch, Ax-3 commander Michael Lopez Alegría described the launch sensations as “acceleration, a little bit of vibration, just the feeling that you're going fast. Wow, what a thrill!”

Lopez Alegría is a Spanish-born astronaut and US Navy veteran. He is one of the most experienced astronauts in history, and the Ax-3 marks his sixth trip into space. Lopez Alegría, 65, retired from NASA in 2012 after four space shuttle missions. He worked as a consultant and advocate for commercial spaceflight, then joined Axiom in 2017, leading the company's first private spaceflight in 2022.

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So why maintain a grueling training schedule at an age when most commercial airline pilots face mandatory retirement?

“It never gets old,” Lopez Alegría said in a press conference before the launch. “I think I feel more appreciation with each launch that gets closer… The first time you go, you're hanging on for dear life and enjoying the ride. But I think you appreciate each one a little more, especially when you realize how rare and plentiful it is, so “I'm happy to continue doing that.”

He rotates commands of Axiom missions with Peggy Whitson, another retired NASA astronaut.

“Axiom definitely wants to continue doing private astronaut missions,” Lopez-Alegría said. “Maybe we will have other commanders in the future, but as long as they ask me to fly, I will raise my hand.” He is the first astronaut to fly on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft twice.

“I think you're showing the ultimate in reuse — reused Commander, reused Dragon, reused Falcon, or maybe it's a word,” Bill Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX executive serving as chief engineer for Thursday's launch, joked. Better flying experience. .

Pilot Walter Velade sat to Lopez Alegría's right during the climb into orbit. He is a colonel in the Italian Air Force. Turkey's first astronaut, Alper Geziravci, and Swedish test pilot Markus Wandt, complete the Ax-3 crew. They will temporarily join long-term residents living on the space station, including four crew members who flew aboard a Dragon spacecraft to the complex in August to begin a six-month stay.

Tightening the government market

Villadei, Gezeravcı and Wandt are traveling to the space station under contracts between their governments and Axiom. The astronauts, all of whom are military officers, will conduct scientific experiments developed by researchers from their countries, and participate in education and awareness events from orbit.

More than 30 research papers are being conducted on the Ax-3, ranging from physiology experiments investigating how microgravity affects the human body, to technology demonstrations and geosciences. For example, the Italian Air Force has developed a software tool that it will test on the Ax-3 to provide space debris and space weather warnings to the space station. Türkiye sends experiments in the fields of genetics and minerals. Sweden and the European Space Agency are sponsoring experiments in brain research, remote control, artificial intelligence and stem cells.

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Michael Lopez-Alegría, Albert Geseraphci, Markus Wandt, and Walter Velade stand inside the SpaceX crew access arm at Launch Complex 39A in Florida.
Zoom in / Michael Lopez-Alegría, Albert Geseraphci, Markus Wandt, and Walter Velade stand inside the SpaceX crew access arm at Launch Complex 39A in Florida.

SpaceX

But there is an unmistakable element of national pride intertwined with these scientific goals.

Veladi flies under the Italian flag under an agreement between the Italian government and Axiom, while most Italian astronauts have historically flown under the umbrella of the European Space Agency. He previously flew into space on a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic's spaceplane, clocking just a few minutes of microgravity. He was one of three Italian Air Force personnel on board a Virgin Galactic flight last June.

“This mission is very important for Italy,” Viladi said. “It is a key step in our national space strategy.”

Geziravcı's flight is considered historic, as he is the first Turkish citizen to travel into space. “We have waited a long time for this mission to become real,” he said. “I am truly honored to serve this role in this mission and to be able to make this happen.”

The Wandt mission was made possible through an agreement between the European Space Agency and the Swedish National Space Agency. ESA then terminated an agreement with Axiom to secure Wandt's seat on Ax-3.

Wandt's presence on the crew is a first for ESA. This is the first time the space agency has sent one of its astronauts into orbit with a commercial company, rather than an intergovernmental agreement with the United States or Russia. He was one of 17 astronauts selected by the European Space Agency in 2022, but joined ESA's ranks as a reserve astronaut, meaning he will continue his career as a test pilot at Saab Aeronautics until he is selected for a space mission.

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He didn't have to wait long. “This additional flight came along and Sweden was very decisive in this and quickly united with industry, the armed forces, government and the European Space Agency to make this happen with Axiom,” Wandt said.

ESA has six active astronauts who have flown into space, as well as five new astronauts and 12 reserve ones who will be selected in 2022. Commercial flight opportunities like this with Axiom enable more Europeans to access space. An ESA backup astronaut could lift off from Poland on an Axiom mission later this year.

“We have our astronaut team, who are the backbone of our human spaceflight activities,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA's director of human and robotic exploration, said in an interview with Ars on Thursday. “But we've also selected these reserves, which are a pool of talent, as we seize the opportunities that come to the fore. It allows us to do more activities in human spaceflight.”

Axiom does not announce seat prices for its missions to the space station, but in the past, they have reportedly cost around $55 million. Swedish media reported last year Sweden expanded its investment in ESA by more than 400 million Swedish krona, or more than $38 million at current exchange rates, to enable Wandt's spaceflight opportunity.

Axiom officials view government-backed astronauts as a lucrative market. It's different from the traditional image of wealthy space tourists paying their way into orbit. There is of course an element of that in Axiom's work as well. The first Axiom mission in 2022 flew three private astronauts, and last year's Ax-2 flew a mixed crew consisting of an Axiom commander, an American businessman, and two Saudi astronauts on a government-sponsored mission.

NASA also supports these special astronaut missions. The US space agency opened the International Space Station to private visitors flying on fully commercial missions in 2019. This is a cornerstone of NASA's strategy to foster a commercial market for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit, with an eye toward eventually building a commercial venture. The case for a privately owned space station to replace the International Space Station after its planned retirement in 2030.

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