Washington: The first fully private mission to the International Space Station blasted off from Florida Friday with a four-member crew from startup company Axiom Space.
NASA has hailed the three-way partnership with Axiom and SpaceX as a key step towards commercializing the region of space known as “Low Earth Orbit,” leaving the agency to focus on more ambitious voyages deeper into the cosmos.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavor launched at 11:17 am (1517 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center, and the spaceship should dock Saturday morning around 7:45 am.
“We’re taking commercial business off the face of the Earth and putting it up in space,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said ahead of lift-off.
Commanding the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) is former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a dual citizen of the United States and Spain, who flew to space four times over his 20-year-career, and last visited the ISS in 2007.
He is joined by three paying crewmates: American real estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, and Israeli former fighter pilot, investor and philanthropist Eytan Stibbe.
The widely reported price for tickets — which includes eight days on the outpost — is $55 million.
While private citizens have visited the ISS before, Ax-1 is the first mission featuring an all-private crew flying a private spacecraft to the outpost — with the launch facilities rented out by NASA.
But unlike the recent, attention-grabbing suborbital flights carried out by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, Axiom says its mission shouldn’t be considered tourism.
On board the ISS, which orbits 250 miles (400 kilometres) above sea level, the quartet will carry out research projects, including an MIT technology demonstration of smart tiles that form a robotic swarm and self-assemble into space architecture.
Another experiment involves using cancer stem cells to grow mini tumours, then leveraging the accelerated aging environment of microgravity to identify early changes in those tumours, in order to improve the early detection of cancers on Earth.
“The distinction is that our guys aren’t going up there and floating around for eight days taking pictures and looking out of the cupola,” Derek Hassmann, operations director of Axiom Space, told reporters at a pre-launch briefing.
“I mean, we have a very intensive and research-oriented timeline plan for them.”
In addition, crewmember Stibbe plans to pay tribute to his late friend Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the spaceship disintegrated upon reentry.
Surviving pages from Ramon’s space diary, as well as mementoes from his children, will be brought to the station by Stibbe.
The Axiom crew will live and work alongside the station’s regular crew: currently three Americans and a German on the US side, and three Russians on the Russian side.
The company has partnered for a total of four missions with SpaceX, and NASA has already approved in principle the second, Ax-2.
Houston-based Axiom, founded in 2016, sees the voyages like the first steps toward a grander goal: to build its own private space station. The first module is due to launch in September 2024, president and CEO Michael Suffredini said.
The plan is for it to initially be attached to the ISS, before eventually flying autonomously when the latter retires and is deorbited sometime after 2030.