Four private astronauts are headed to the International Space Station

We’ve now entered a new era of spaceflight with Ax-1 — the first private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that launched Friday and arrives today. Ax-1 is being conducted by Axiom Space and sending four private astronauts for an eight-day stay on board the ISS.

While private astronauts have flown before, as guests on board the Russian Soyuz rocket and in 2021 as part of the Inspiration 4 mission, Ax-1 will be the first entirely private mission to the ISS. In the not-too-distant future, flights like the Ax-1 are likely to comprise the majority of crewed space missions.

Currently, even on ISS missions flown on the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the vast majority of people who fly in space work for NASA or some other country’s space agency. When commercial space stations planned for 2030 and beyond are operational, most people who fly into space, at least to low-Earth orbit, will be private astronauts. NASA will just be one customer among many.

According to Space.Com, the crew of the Ax-1 consists of Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who is also an Axiom executive and mission commander,  Ax-1 pilot Larry  Connor and Ax-1 mission specialists Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe. The crew will spend their eight days aboard the ISS conducting 100 hours of science experiments. These include medical, science, technology and Earth observation experiments will be conducted on behalf of universities, medical institutions and private companies. They range from “space travel’s impact on senescent cells and heart health” to “a mixed reality app for special lenses that receives two-way 3D projections as a hologram to communicate between users remotely.”

Stibbe will help to facilitate “scientific experiments and will conduct educational and artistic activities to connect the younger generation in Israel and around the globe on the values of peace, innovation, and social responsibility.”

Ax-1 will be followed by Ax-2 in 2023, commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. Ax-3 and Ax-4, which will be of longer duration due to the addition of a dedicated module to be provided by Axiom to the ISS, will come later. Eventually, Axiom plans to add as many as four modules to the NASA space station, which will eventually be detached and form the basis of its commercial station.

Besides making some money by conducting these flights, Axiom Space is creating experience in private spaceflight that will serve the company in good stead when it starts to operate its commercial space station. Axiom is one of the companies that NASA has contracted to build commercial successors to the ISS once that orbiting lab is decommissioned, later this decade.

The Ax-1 mission also continues the sea change of the economics of space travel. When NASA was racing the Soviets to the moon and, afterward, during the space shuttle era, space exploration was an expense that was justified by relatively intangible reasons such as science, national pride and inspiring the young.

Because space exploration was not perceived to have a direct economic return, political arguments ensued about how it allegedly took money from priorities thought to be more important, such as social spending. As it turned out, as the 1970s Chase Econometric study suggested, spending on the Apollo program did result in an economic return to the United States, albeit indirectly.

Now, space exploration will start to garner a direct economic return. Private organizations such as the sponsors of Ax-1 will fly experiments with a view to creating new goods and services. Commercial space stations will be expected to turn a profit, even if much of their revenues will come from NASA and other government customers, at least initially.

Beyond commercial space flights and commercial space stations, the sky is literally the limit when it comes to going to space to make money. Tourism, mining of the moon and asteroids, and microgravity manufacturing are some of the businesses that are likely to develop over time.

Room will still exist for the more heroic, nationalistic kind of space exploration conducted by NASA and other national space agencies, as allies and as rivals, depending on political imperatives. NASA’s Artemis program, after all, will involve good science and prestige for its participants on the moon and later on Mars, at least at first.

But the commercial companies and space entrepreneurs will follow NASA into deep space, just as they are into low-Earth orbit. Thus, the transformation of humanity into a multi-planet species will proceed apace, motivated as much by profit as by anything else.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Commercial space exploration International Space Station Mark R. Whittington NASA Space Space exploration techology
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