A private mission launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Thursday.
Unlike previous flights, none of the passengers are wealthy space tourists who pay their own way to get to orbit. Instead, three of the crew members are sponsored by their respective countries: Italy, Sweden and Turkey. For Turkey, the crew member is the country’s first astronaut.
The flight, carried out by Axiom Space of Houston, is part of a new era where countries no longer need to build their own rockets and spacecraft to undertake a human spaceflight program. Now they can simply purchase rides from a commercial company, almost like buying a plane ticket.
The astronauts boarded a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a day’s delay for additional vehicle checks, the countdown proceeded smoothly, with the rocket’s engines igniting at 4:49 p.m. Eastern Time.
For the European Space Agency and its 22 countries, commercial flights like Axiom’s offer a way to get more Europeans into space and highlight the mix of traditional and commercial space programs.
The ESA currently pays 8.3% of the space station costs and its astronauts therefore receive this fraction of the six-month missions. This currently equates to just four flights between now and the space station’s planned decommissioning in 2030.
“We don’t have many flights, so we can’t give an astronaut to every member state,” said Frank De Winne, head of ESA’s astronaut office. “It’s impossible.”
But Marcus Wandt, the Swedish astronaut on Thursday’s Axiom flight, will travel to the International Space Station by commercial plane.
“If Axiom didn’t have that option, this wouldn’t have happened now,” Mr. Wandt said at a news conference last week.
Mr Wandt, a fighter and test pilot, applied to become an ESA astronaut a few years ago. Among 22,500 applicants, he reached the final round of selections, but was not among the five that ESA chose as new full-time astronauts.
However, he was named a “reserve” astronaut. These are unpaid positions, but reserve astronauts are eligible for training and a mission to space if a commercial opportunity arises and their country is willing to pay the ticket.
“This is why we created the reserve corps,” Mr De Winne said.
The Axiom-3 crew members are not the first government astronauts to finance their orbit in this way.
The United Arab Emirates purchased a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2019 for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station for one of its astronauts, Hazzaa Al-Mansoori. Axiom Space has arranged a six-month stay on the space station for a second Emirati astronaut, Sultan Alneyadi, in 2023. Saudi Arabia also sent two astronauts to the International Space Station on the last Axiom flight last year.
In March, Swedish officials learned that Axiom had an empty seat for this private astronaut mission. “If we could make a quick decision, we could do it,” said Anna Rathsman, director general of the Swedish National Space Agency.
“We realized that this kind of opportunity doesn’t come along very often,” said Mats Persson, Sweden’s minister for higher education, research and space. “And when we got it, we took it.”
Sweden, with financial contributions from the space agency, the Swedish armed forces and companies like Saab, paid nearly 450 million Swedish crowns, or about $43 million, for Mr. Wandt to go to the space. That’s less than the $55 million Axiom initially announced in 2018 to charge for a seat. (Axiom now refuses to disclose the cost.)
With the agreement in place, Mr. Wandt was promoted from reserve astronaut to project astronaut – a one-year paid position for this mission. His work on the space station includes an experiment identifying the effects of weightlessness on stem cells and how the architectural parameters of space affect the physical and mental well-being of astronauts.
Other ESA members have also signed up for future Axiom flights. Similar to the Swedish deal for Mr. Wandt, Poland has an astronaut, Slawosz Uznanski, who is another ESA reserve astronaut, lined up for a future Axiom flight. The British Space Agency has also signed an agreement with Axiom to send its astronauts into orbit.
Other crew members on this flight include Alper Gezeravci, a Turkish Air Force fighter pilot, and Walter Villadei, a Colonel in the Italian Air Force.
As Turkey’s first astronaut, Mr. Gezeravci hopes to serve as an inspiration to future generations in his country.
“This spaceflight is not a destination of our journey,” he said during the crew’s press conference. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”
The Italian Villadei, the pilot of the mission, has already been into space, but only for a few minutes. He was one of three members of the Italian Air Force who carried out a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in June last year, conducting several experiments in biomedicine, fluid dynamics and materials science.
Although Italy is also a member of ESA, the trip was organized for Mr Villadei by the Italian Air Force and not the country’s space agency.
The mission commander is Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and now chief astronaut at Axiom. NASA requires that private astronaut missions be led by a former NASA astronaut.
Other countries have also taken a commercial approach to human spaceflight, and the idea is not new.
More than a decade ago, Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in real estate, including the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, planned to launch private resorts that would be rented to paying customers, primarily countries, that he described as “sovereign clients”. .”
Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, has signed memorandums of understanding with countries including the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia and Britain.
Due to delays in other aerospace companies’ development of spacecraft that would transport people to and from space stations, Bigelow’s plans never got off the ground.
Still, Michael Gold, who was then director of Bigelow Aerospace’s Washington office, said Bigelow’s early efforts helped free up space for what Axiom does now.
Mr. Gold said that at the time, a foreign space tourist would have had to be accompanied by someone from the U.S. Defense Technology Security Administration to ensure the tourist would not learn any regulated aerospace technology.
Ultimately, federal officials decided it wasn’t necessary.
“This is a great example of how the early work we did at Bigelow Aerospace was a pioneer in creating the ecosystem that Axiom Space and every other company benefits from today,” Mr. Gold, now chief growth officer at Redwire, a space infrastructure company.