All-private astronaut team lifts into space in landmark launch

SpaceX’s flight is its first to take private citizens to the ISS after two years of carrying astronauts there for NASA.

A SpaceX rocket ship blasted off carrying the first all-private astronaut team ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS), a flight hailed by industry executives and NASA as a milestone in the commercialisation of low-Earth orbit.

Friday‘s flight is the second private charter for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which took a billionaire and his guests on a three-day orbit ride last year.

Live video webcast by Axiom showed the 25-story-tall SpaceX launch vehicle – consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by its Crew Dragon capsule – streaking into the blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast atop a fiery, yellowish tail of exhaust.

Three businessmen and a former astronaut are traveling to the ISS on the first-ever US private charter flight to the orbiting station [Steve Nesius/Reuters]

Cameras inside the crew compartment beamed footage of the four men strapped into the pressurised cabin, seated calmly in their helmeted white-and-black flight suits moments before the rocket soared towards space.

Arriving at the space station Saturday will be an American, Canadian and Israeli who run investment, real estate and other companies. They are paying $55mn apiece for the rocket ride and accommodations, all meals included.

A former astronaut, Spanish-American Michael Lopez-Alegria is commanding the mission.

The three businessmen: Larry Connor of Dayton, Ohio, Mark Pathy, of Montreal, and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe, are the latest to take advantage of the opening of space to those with deep pockets. Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin is taking customers on 10-minute rides to the edge of space, while Virgin Galactic expects to start flying customers on its rocket ship later this year.

Axiom is targeting next year for its second private flight to the space station. It intends to add more customer trips in the future, with Axiom planning to add its own rooms to the orbiting complex beginning in 2024. After about five years, the company plans to detach its compartments to form a self-sustaining station — one of several commercial outposts intended to replace the space station once it’s retired and NASA shifts to the moon.

Russia has been hosting tourists at the space station — and before that the Mir station — for decades. In 2021, a Russian movie crew flew up, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant.

NASA is finally getting into the act, after years of opposing space station visitors.

“It was a hell of a ride,” said former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the chaperone, on reaching orbit.

The visitors’ tickets include access to all but the Russian portion of the space station – for that they will need permission from the three cosmonauts on board. Three Americans and a German are also currently up there.

Rocket flies by US flag
The Cres Dragon capsule is expected to arrive at the ISS after nearly a day in orbit [John Raoux/AP]

Lopez-Alegria plans to avoid talking about politics and the war in Ukraine while he’s at the space station.

“I honestly think that it won’t be awkward. I mean maybe a tiny bit,” he said. He expects the “spirit of collaboration will shine through.”

SpaceX and NASA have been upfront with the passengers about the risks of spaceflight, said Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months at the space station 15 years ago.

“There’s no fuzz, I think, on what the dangers are or what the bad days could look like,” Lopez-Alegria told The Associated Press before the flight.

Each visitor has a full slate of experiments to conduct during their nine to 10 days there, one reason they do not like to be called space tourists.

“They’re not up there to paste their nose on the window,” said Axiom’s co-founder and president, Michael Suffredini, a former NASA space station programme manager.

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