A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared into space Friday carrying a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy civilians on the first non-government, fully commercial flight to the International Space Station — a trailblazing mission intended to help pave the way to a privately operated space lab.
Using a previously flown first stage, the Falcon 9 thundered to life at 11:17 a.m. EDT and vaulted skyward from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, climbing away to the northeast.
Strapped into a Crew Dragon capsule atop the rocket were Axiom-1 mission commander Michael Lopéz-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and vice president at the Houston-based company Axiom Space, and his crewmates, Ohio investor Larry Connor, Canadian entrepreneur Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe, a former F-16 fighter pilot and businessman.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Axiom-1 mission with a commercial crew of four headed to the International Space Station, April 8, 2022.
The automated climb to space appeared to go smoothly, with the rocket’s first stage powering the vehicle out of the dense lower atmosphere before falling away to head for landing on an off-shore droneship. It was the booster’s fourth flight, and its picture-perfect landing marked SpaceX’s 113th successful first stage recovery.
The second stage, meanwhile, completed the climb to orbit and the Crew Dragon was released to fly on its own 12 minutes after liftoff.
“Dragon, SpaceX, nominal orbit insertion,” a flight controller radioed.
“We copy. It’s great to be here,” Lopéz-Alegría replied. Then, echoing John Glenn’s words after reaching orbit 60 years ago, he added, “Zero G, and we feel fine!”
The launching marked the sixth piloted flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. It’s the second fully commercial flight to orbit — following the privately financed Inspiration4 mission last September — and the first all-commercial visit to the International Space Station.
“On behalf of the Falcon 9 team, welcome to space,” radioed Bill Gerstenmeir, NASA’s former director of spaceflight operations and now a senior manager with SpaceX. “Thanks for flying Falcon 9. You guys enjoy your trip to that wonderful space station in the sky, do some great research for us, and we’ll look to see you back here on the ground.”
“It was a hell of a ride,” Lopéz-Alegría said. “We’re looking forward to the next 10 days.”
A camera on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage captures a spectacular view of the Crew Dragon capsule slowly drifting away after reaching orbit. If all goes well, the spacecraft will dock with the International Space Station early Saturday.
If all goes well, López-Alegría and Connor, a veteran private pilot, will monitor an automated 20-hour rendezvous and approach to the space station before moving in for docking at the lab’s forward Harmony module around 7:45 a.m. Saturday.
The commercial crew will be welcomed aboard by station commander Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari, Kayla Barron and German astronaut Matthias Maurer, launched aboard another Crew Dragon last November. Also on hand: Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Medveev and Sergey Korsakov, who arrived at the outpost last month aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.
Eleven private astronauts, or “space tourists,” have visited the space station over the past two decades under commercial arrangements with the Russian space agency. But they all were escorted by professional cosmonauts and flew on government-sponsored missions.
The Axiom-1 — Ax-1 — crew is the first all-commercial non-government flight to the station and the first sanctioned by NASA.
The mission was financed by Axiom Space, a company with deep roots in the aerospace community that is working with NASA to build commercial space station modules that initially will be attached to the International Space Station.
When the ISS is retired at the end of the decade, the Axiom modules will be detached to fly on their own as an independent commercially operated space station. Ax-1 is the first in a series of stepping-stone flights leading up to that first commercial module launch in 2024. Additional flights and modules are planned after that.
The Axiom-1 crew
The Axiom-1 crew during training at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California (left to right): Larry Connor, mission commander Michael López-Alegría, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.
López-Alegría, an Axiom vice president, is a veteran of four space flights who served as commander of the space station before retiring from NASA in 2012. He received refresher training for the Ax-1 flight and serves as a mentor to his “very successful” rookie crewmates.
Connor is a “non-profit activist investor” and founder of the Connor Group, a real estate investment firm managing $3.5 billion in assets. He is an acrobatic pilot, off-road racer and mountaineer. Pathy is chairman and CEO of a Montreal-based investment and finance company.
Stibbe flew F-16 jets in the Israeli air force, later serving in the reserves while building a successful business career. During active duty, he served under Ilan Ramon, who lost his life in the Columbia shuttle disaster after becoming the first Israeli in space. His mission is sponsored, in part, by the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency.
Assisted by López-Alegría, all three Ax-1 passengers plan a full slate of bio-medical research, technology development and public outreach activity, far beyond the usual fare for space tourists.
“I think it’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts,” Connor said before launch. “Our feeling is with space tourists, they’ll spend 10 or 15 hours training, five to 10 minutes in space. And by the way, that’s fine.
“In our case, we’ve spent anywhere from 750 to over a thousand hours training. We’re going to do some 25 different experiments encompassing over 100 hours of research. We understand this first civilian mission is a big honor and a big opportunity. But with that comes a big responsibility, and that is to execute the mission correctly and successfully.”
In an interview with CBS Correspondant Mark Strassmann, López-Alegría said the mission “looks like a government mission from the outside. The difference is, it’s a private company and these are private customers. This is a real turning point in human spaceflight.”
The cost of the flight, covered by Axiom, has not been revealed, but NASA’s inspector general has estimated the price of a Falcon 9/Crew Dragon flight at around $55 million per passenger. Axiom covered the cost of López-Alegría’s seat while Connor, Pathy and Stibbe paid the company undisclosed amounts for their “tickets” to space.