SpaceX launches private citizens for 8-day visit to space station


SpaceX on Sunday launched a crew of private astronauts, including two representing Saudi Arabia, in a mission to the International Space Station that was chartered by another private space company, Axiom Space.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 5:37 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the second group of private citizens to fly with Axiom to the space station and offering a reminder of how quickly human space flight is evolving from the days when only national governments had the wherewithal to train and launch people into space.

On May 21, SpaceX launched four private citizens to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Video: The Washington Post)

The crew is expected to arrive at the space station at about 9:30 a.m. Eastern Monday for an eight-day stay, performing research and science experiments. Axiom has not said how much the mission cost, but members of the previous mission paid as much as $55 million each.

Axiom conducted the training for this flight and commissioned the SpaceX launch. Axiom’s long-term goal is to build its own space station in low Earth orbit and continue to send people from all over the world to it. It also holds a contract from NASA to build the spacesuits that astronauts will wear on the surface of the moon as part of the space agency’s Artemis program.

Axiom’s first mission, in 2022, to the space station included three wealthy business executives who were accompanied by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who serves as Axiom’s chief astronaut.

Sunday’s Axiom-2 mission is being led by Peggy Whitson, a decorated NASA astronaut who has completed 10 spacewalks and spent 665 days in space, more than any other American. She is now Axiom’s director of human spaceflight and would build on her impressive legacy with her fourth spaceflight mission.

She is joined by Rayyanah Barnawi, a biomedical researcher who specializes in stem-cell research, who would become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to go to space. Ali Alqarni is also representing Saudi Arabia. A former member of the Saudi air force, he is an accomplished pilot who has flown multiple aircraft.

John Shoffner, an American businessman who founded a fiber-optic cable company, is serving as the pilot on the mission. He’s a lifelong space enthusiast who got his pilot’s license when he was 17. Now, he flies in air shows and races sports cars. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my entire life,” he said during a news conference last week.

The Axiom crew is flying on SpaceX’s “Freedom” spacecraft, which has also been used by NASA to ferry its astronauts to the space station.

For years, NASA did not allow private citizens to visit the space station, though Russia did. NASA changed its policy in 2019 in a nod to the growing commercial space sector, which the space agency now relies on for a number of crucial missions, including flying its own astronauts to the ISS.

“These missions are very important to us at NASA as we try to open up space, and low Earth orbit especially, to a greater cross section of society,” Ken Bowersox, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, said during a news conference before the flight. “There’s a lot to be done there. And we think the economy in low Earth orbit will continue to expand and someday NASA will just be a participant in that economy, buying services from private industry in low Earth orbit as NASA goes out and explores on the cutting edge.”

In 2021, SpaceX flew four private citizens to orbit in its Dragon spacecraft. That group, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, spent three days circling the globe in a mission called Inspiration4 that raised more than $250 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Since then, Isaacman has commissioned three more flights, including one scheduled for later this year that will feature a spacewalk. Isaacman also intends to fly on the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which NASA intends to use to land its astronauts on the moon.

“We really feel like we’re prepared to go,” Whitson said. The Axiom-2 mission is “a precursor for where we’re headed.” The company plans to launch its first space station module in 2025. That module would be attached to the ISS and would help the company get more people to space.



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