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First all-private astronaut mission to ISS readies for liftoff

The International Space Station (ISS) is set to become busier than usual this week when its crew welcomes on board four new colleagues from Houston-based startup Axiom Space, the first all-private astronaut team ever flown to the orbiting outpost.

The launch is being hailed by the company NASA and other industry players as a turning point in the latest expansion of commercial space ventures collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy,

Weather permitting, Axiom’s four-man team will lift off on Friday at the earliest from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, riding atop a Falcon 9 rocket furnished and flown by Elon Musk’s commercial space launch venture SpaceX.

The launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday. An Axiom spokesperson said on Monday the delay would give SpaceX more time to complete pre-launch processing work.

If all goes smoothly, the quartet led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria would arrive at the space station about 28 hours later as their SpaceX-supplied Crew Dragon capsule docks at ISS some 400km (250 miles) above Earth.

Lopez-Alegria, 63, is the Spanish-born mission commander and Axiom’s vice president of business development. He is set to be joined by Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.

Rounding out the Ax-1 team are investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists. Stibbe is set to become the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

The Ax-1 crew may appear to have a lot in common with many of the wealthy passengers taking suborbital rides lately on board the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services offered by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively. But Axiom executives said their mission is more substantive.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
Weather permitting, Axiom’s four-man team will lift off on Friday at the earliest from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, riding atop a Falcon 9 rocket, pictured here from a November 2021 launch, furnished and flown by Elon Musk’s commercial space launch venture SpaceX [File: Thom Baur/Reuters]

“We are not space tourists,” Lopez-Alegria said during a recent news briefing, adding that the Axiom team has undergone extensive astronaut training with both NASA and SpaceX and will be performing meaningful biomedical research.

“It is the beginning of many beginnings for commercializing low-Earth orbit,” Axiom’s co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian, told Reuters news agency in an interview. “We’re like in the early days of the internet, and we haven’t even imagined all the possibilities, all the capabilities, that we’re going to be providing in space.”

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