NASA Gives Axiom Space Another Opening to Fly Private Astronauts to Space Station

Even though Texas-based Axiom Space hasn’t yet sent its first crew of customers to the International Space Station, NASA is giving the company an opportunity to send a second crew, potentially just months later.

NASA says it will begin negotiations with Axiom on a space station mission scheduled sometime between the autumn of 2022 and the late spring of 2023. Under a pricing policy laid out earlier this year, NASA would charge $10 million to support each private astronaut during their stay in orbit, plus extra charges for food and supplies.

It’ll cost tens of millions more for the ride to the space station and back. The three customers who have signed up for Axiom’s first space station mission in February are reportedly paying $55 million each, which includes the fare for a trip in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

Axiom has already selected its commander for the second mission, known as Ax-2: Peggy Whitson, who served three stints aboard the space station as a NASA astronaut.

Whitson set the women’s record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman in 2017 — a 289-day record that was broken by Christina Koch’s 328-day flight in 2020. Whitson still holds the record for cumulative time spent in space by a NASA astronaut, and by any woman (665 days). She retired from the space agency in 2018 and then went to work for Axiom.

Axiom has said John Shoffner — an airplane pilot, champion GT racer and supporter of life science research from Knoxville, Tenn. — will be one of Whitson’s crewmates on the Ax-2 mission.

In May, the Discovery Channel said a spot on the Ax-2 crew could serve as the grand prize in a reality-TV show it was planning, called “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” At the time, Axiom communications manager Beau Holder acknowledged that the idea was under discussion but made no commitment.

“We look forward to revealing the other two crew members at a later date,” Holder said back then.

In its Dec. 13 announcement, NASA said it evaluated the Ax-2 proposal based on Axiom’s ability to execute it successfully, NASA’s ability to support it, and its contribution to the space agency’s mission and the goal of commercializing space operations in low Earth orbit. NASA also said it would review Axiom’s proposed astronaut selections, “as is standard for any space station crew.”

The proposed crew members for Axiom’s first planned trip to the space station — including investors Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe — are still completing final evaluations by NASA and its international partners, NASA said. That Ax-1 mission, due to be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than Feb. 21.

NASA hasn’t yet selected a third private astronaut mission to the station. Agency officials say they want to see how Ax-1 goes first.

Privately supported spaceflight has had a banner year in 2021: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture began putting paying customers on suborbital space trips in July, and conducted its third crewed flight last weekend. In September, four spacefliers rode a Crew Dragon into orbit for the free-flying Inspiration4 mission. And in October, a Russian actress and a film director took a Soyuz trip to the space station to shoot scenes for a movie.

The private astronauts who are currently aboard the space station — Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant, Yozo Hirano — took advantage of a program that’s been managed by Russia’s space agency and Virginia-based Space Adventures since 2001. But Ax-1 will mark the first time ever that private astronauts have visited the space station as part of a NASA program.

Lead image: John Shoffner and Peggy Whitson go through Crew Dragon simulator training at SpaceX. Source: John Shoffner via Twitter