The dram of the SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, to run a commercial transport service to space is becoming truer with each day passed. Last year, SpaceX recorded a historic feat with two successful missions to space, paving the way for everyone who can afford the cost to jump the rockets.
Now, a trio of American real estate investors, a Canadian investor, and a former Israeli Air Force pilot are teaming up to pay $55 million each to be part of the first fully private astronaut crew journey to the International Space Station (ISS). The Verge reported that the trio will hitch a ride on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule early next year, with a veteran NASA astronaut as the commander.
The trip, named Ax-1 mission is being organized by Texas-based space tourism company Axiom Space, and will underscore a milestone in the quest to make space travel accessible to private customers.
“As the first fully private mission to go the ISS, we feel an enormous responsibility to do it well. We realize that this is the trend-setter, the bar-setter for the future, and so our goal is to really exceed all expectations,” Michael Lopez-Alegria, the mission commander told The Verge.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, with seven seats capacity was approved last year by NASA under its Commercial Crew Program to fly humans to the space station.
The Crew Dragon was first tested in March 2019, when SpaceX performed an uncrewed test flight to the ISS. But the progress suffered setbacks in April, when the spacecraft disappointedly exploded following a valve malfunction while in a routine test back on earth.
Musk and his team turned things around the next year, and the trip to the ISS became a success.
The Verge reported that Larry Connor, an entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor, Mark Pathy, the Canadian investor and Philanthropist, Eytan Stibbe, the former Israeli fighter pilot and an impact investor, were made known on Tuesday morning by Axiom as the company’s inaugural crew. And Connor, 71, would become the second oldest person to fly to space after John Gleen, who flew the US space shuttle Discovery at 77 years old.
The report reveals some details of the trip including a breakdown of the $55 million expense. The Crew’s flight to the space station, an orbital laboratory some 250 miles above Earth, will take two days. They’ll then spend about eight days aboard the station’s US segment, where they’ll take part “in research and philanthropic projects,” Axiom said in a statement.
However, the Crew will have to find a sleeping space for themselves somewhere in the ISS as US, Russia and German astronauts will take the only sleeping quarters there.
“There aren’t any astronaut crew quarters for us, which is fine. Sleeping in Zero-G is pretty much the same wherever you are once you close your eyes,” said Lopez-Alegria.
As the dream of running commercial trips to the ISS and beyond got closer to reality, NASA, which previously prohibited private visits to the ISS on US spacecraft, reviewed its policy to allow private astronauts flights to the ISS. The trip will mark the first since 2000 when seven private citizens flew to the station as wealthy tourists on separate missions via Russia’s Soyuz.
A breakdown of the trip’s bill published in the 2019 NASA’s policy update reveals a hefty price tag. Using the toilet and life support systems will cost $11,250 per astronaut, all necessary crew supplies, including food, air; medical supplies etc. will cost $22,500, and $42 per kilowatt-hour for power. It thus sums the bill to about $35,000 a night person, which for the crew members on the Ax-1 mission, there is $1.1 million to pay for eight nights.
But Axiom says those nightly costs are included in the $55 million price private astronauts are already paying.
“The company bills itself as a turnkey, full-service mission provider that interfaces with all other parties (e.g NASA) for the astronauts. Any and all necessary costs are part of Axiom’s ticket price,” Axiom’s spokesman said.
However, The Verge reported that the Ax-1 mission will have to be approved by the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel, the space station’s managing body of partner countries that include the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and others. But Lopez said the process has already kicked off.
“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the background and qualifications of the crew are more than adequate to be accepted by the MCOP, so I feel good about that,” he said.
The $55 million bill for the trip might seem expensive but it’s quite cheaper than the $90 million American astronauts used to pay per seat to Russia to board its Soyuz. But that changed through the US government’s partnership with private spaceflight companies to build private spacecraft to replace the defunct.
In 2010, under president Obama, a program called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) began to replace the existing space shuttle going on retirement. The aim was to replace the shuttle with a privately built spacecraft. Two US companies, SpaceX and Boeing were contracted with $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion funding respectively to build a new spaceflight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
But Musk has a bigger plan to put people on the moon using a Starship vehicle, a larger spacecraft he is building to accommodate more private travelers.
The Starship vehicle is expected to accommodate up to 100 passengers. SpaceX is planning to include it with two other vehicles in its Artemis program billed to commence Moon trips in 2024. The Ax-1 mission is part of SpaceX’s contract with NASA, which requires it to continue to deliver astronauts to the ISS increasing the number of passengers up to four.