SpaceX and Axiom X-3 Mission to International Space Station: Video

A private mission sent four astronauts to the International Space Station on Thursday.

Unlike previous such flights, none of the passengers are wealthy space tourists paying their own way into orbit. Instead, the three group members are sponsored by their countries, Italy, Sweden and Turkey. For Turkey, the crew member is the country's first astronaut.

The flight, by Houston's Axiom Space, is part of a new era where nations no longer have to launch their own rockets and spacecraft to launch human spaceflight programs. Now they can buy rides from a merchant, almost like buying an airline ticket.

Astronauts ride aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket and launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a day's delay for additional tests of the vehicle, the countdown went smoothly, with the rocket engines firing at 4:49 p.m. ET.

The spacecraft is expected to arrive at the space station early Saturday morning.

Ax-3 is the third private space mission for Axiom, which is building its own space station and developing new space suits for NASA. It leased the rocket from SpaceX, and starting in 2022 it will send paying customers for a two-week stay aboard the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA opened a portion of the space station to visitors, a change from previous policies. (Russia has hosted a series of space tourists on the International Space Station since 2001.)

For the European Space Agency and its 22 countries, commercial flights like Axiom's provide a way for more Europeans to get into space and highlight the mix of traditional and commercial space programs.

ESA currently pays 8.3 percent of the cost of the space station, so that its astronauts receive that portion of their six-month missions there. This currently corresponds to four flights until the planned retirement of the space station in 2030.

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“We don't have many flights, so we can't provide an astronaut for every member state,” said Frank de Vinne, head of ESA's Astronaut Office. “That's impossible.”

But Swedish astronaut Markus Vand, aboard Jupiter's Axiom, will make a commercial flight to the International Space Station.

“If Axiom hadn't had this option, it wouldn't have happened now,” said Mr. Wand said during a news conference last week.

Fighter and test pilot Mr. Wand applied to become an astronaut at ESA a few years ago. From 22,500 applicants, he made it to the final round of tests, but was not one of the five selected by ESA as new full-time astronauts.

However, he was named a “reserve” astronaut. These are unpaid positions, but reserve astronauts are eligible to train and serve if a commercial opportunity arises and their country is willing to pay for the ticket.

“This is why we created the Reserve Corps,” Mr. De Vinne said.

Ax-3 crew members are not the first government astronauts to orbit in this fashion.

The UAE bought one of its astronauts, Hazza Al-Mansouri, a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station in 2019. Axiom Space has arranged for a second Emirati astronaut to stay at the Sultan Al Niadi Space Station for six months in 2023. Last year, Saudi Arabia sent two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard the Axiom spacecraft.

In March, Swedish officials heard that Axiom had an empty seat on this private space mission. “If we can make a quick decision, this is an opportunity to do that,” said Anna Rathsman, director general of the Swedish National Space Agency.

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“This kind of opportunity, we realized, doesn't happen often,” said Swedish Minister of Higher Education, Research and Space Mats Persson. “When we got it, we took it.”

With funding from Sweden's space agency, Sweden's armed forces and companies like Saab, Mr. Wanted paid about 450 million Swedish krona, or about $43 million, to go into space. That's less than the $55 million Axiom said it charged per seat in 2018. (Axiom declines to disclose pricing right now.)

While the agreement is in effect, Mr. Wand was promoted from reserve astronaut to project astronaut – a year's pay for this assignment. Her work on the space station includes an experiment to determine the effects of weightlessness on stem cells and how architectural systems in space affect the physical and mental well-being of astronauts.

Other members of ESA have also signed up for future Axiom flights. Like Sweden's arrangement for Mr Wandt, Poland also has an astronaut, another of ESA's reserve astronauts, Slavos Usnanski, lined up for a future Axiom flight. The United Kingdom Space Agency has also contracted Axiom to fly its astronauts into orbit.

On this flight, other crew members included fighter pilot Alper Gezeravci of the Turkish Air Force and Colonel Walter Villadei of the Italian Air Force.

As the first Turkish astronaut, Mr. Kesaravsi hopes to serve as an inspiration to future generations in his country.

“This spaceflight is not the goal of our mission,” he said during the crew's news conference. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”

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The pilot of the mission, Mr. Villadei has already been in space, but only for a few minutes. He was one of three members of the Italian Air Force who flew aboard a Virgin Galactic satellite in June last year, conducting a range of experiments in biomedicine, fluid dynamics and materials science.

Although Italy is also a member of ESA, Mr.

The mission's commander is Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and currently the chief astronaut on Axiom. NASA requires that private space missions be led by a former NASA astronaut.

Other countries have adopted a commercial approach to human spaceflight, and the idea is not new.

Ten years ago, Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in real estate, including the budget Suites of America hotel chain, planned to launch private resorts that catered to clients, primarily countries, he called “sovereign clients.” .”

Mr. Bigelow's company, Bigelow Aerospace, has signed MoUs with countries like the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia and Britain.

Bigelow's plans never got off the ground because of delays in the development of other space companies that could take people to space stations.

However, Michael Gould, director of Bigelow Aerospace's Washington office, said Bigelow's early efforts helped pave the way for what Axiom is doing now.

At the time, Mr. Gould said.

Ultimately, federal officials decided it was unnecessary.

“This is a great example of how our early work at Bigelow Aerospace was a precursor to building the ecosystem that Axiom Space and other companies take advantage of today,” said Mr. Gould said. Space Infrastructure Agency.

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