SpaceX launches first all-private mission to International Space Station

An all-private crew took off from Kennedy Space Center on Friday morning for a flight to the International Space Station, marking another milestone in the development of human spaceflight and the growth of the commercial space sector.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 11:17 am carrying three wealthy entrepreneurs, each paying $55 million for the mission, and a former NASA astronaut who serves as their guide. While private individuals have flown to the for years Space station on Russian rockets, the mission — commissioned by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company — is the first all-private mission to the station. It is also the first time that private individuals have flown to the station from American soil.

The international crew consists of Larry Connor, managing partner of a real estate group in Ohio; Mark Pathy, the managing director of a Canadian investment firm; Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot; and Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who serves as Axiom’s vice president. They are expected to reach the station around 7:45 a.m. Eastern on Saturday. They will spend eight days on the station before returning home in SpaceX’s autonomous Dragon spacecraft.

During a live broadcast of the mission, Kate Tice, a SpaceX engineer, called it “an absolutely perfect launch.” And in communications with Mission Control, Lopez-Alegria said, “It was a lot of fun.”

The flight comes at a time when more and more privates are leaving the atmosphere, dramatically expanding the ranks of astronauts. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, and Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Richard Branson, have taken crews on suborbital voyages that push the limits of space and offer passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

However, the Axiom mission is far more ambitious – taking the crew all the way to the space station, which orbits the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. And instead of just stargazing and reveling in the wonders of weightlessness, the crew say they’ll be engaged in meaningful research and therefore reluctant to be called “space tourists.”

Speaking to reporters before the flight, Connor said he felt it was “important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts.”

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He said the crews trained between 750 and more than 1,000 hours at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and at SpaceX’s headquarters outside of Los Angeles. And he said they would be involved in more than two dozen scientific experiments aboard the orbiting lab.

For example, Connor plans to collaborate with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic on research projects aimed at better understanding aging; Pathy works with the Canadian Space Agency and Montreal Children’s Hospital on health-related projects.

Axiom is planning a series of privately funded missions to the space station, taking advantage of a NASA policy change that banned private flights to the space station through 2019. The company is also developing its own space station, which it hopes will eventually serve as a replacement for the International Space Station.

As a NASA astronaut, Lopez-Alegria flew into space four times in 20 years. In 2006 he flew on the Russian Soyuz with Anousheh Ansari, a private citizen who had paid for one reported $20 million for the trip. At first, Lopez-Alegria was skeptical, fearing that their presence would distract the professionally trained crews. But he said her diligence and “complete professionalism” won him and his colleagues over.

“I think the hesitation is natural when you come from a background as a military pilot and then you spend your whole career trying to be an astronaut and then somebody cuts the line, if you will,” he told The Post last year. “It was a little hard to swallow.”

He said he expects “some resistance” from crews on the station, but it’s up to the Axiom crew to “win them over”.

In a press conference this week, Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s operations director, said the crew “aims to be the best possible private astronauts imaginable. They want to be good house guests, if you will.”

Last year, SpaceX flew another mission with four private individuals. Instead of going to the space station, the crew stayed in the Dragon capsule, which orbited the earth for three days. Dubbed Inspiration4, the mission was funded by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who has since commissioned three other private spaceflights from SpaceX. Two would be back on the Dragon, and the third would be the first manned flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which NASA plans to use to land astronauts on the moon.

Axiom’s launch was delayed a few times as NASA worked to test its Space Launch System rocket on an adjacent launch pad. In the test, NASA intends to fully fuel the rocket that would fly astronauts to the moon and run a simulated countdown. However, problems arose with a valve designed to relieve pressure in the rocket during propellant loading.

In a statement from NASA said it would “investigate the issue on the pad,” which would inform “the way forward.” Despite the setback, NASA said it “provided teams with a valuable training opportunity and ensured the modeled loading procedures were accurate.”

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