SpaceX’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Axiom-2 aka Ax-2, which is sponsored Axiom Space, received a “go” for launch from NASA on May 15 followed by a stamp of approval from Mother Nature on May 19, and finally a completion of the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) on May 20. Liftoff is currently scheduled for May 21 at 5:37pm EDT (2:37pm PDT) from NASA Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch complex 39A, which was the launch site for all crewed Apollo-Saturn V launches starting with Apollo 8, along with Skylab, dozens of Space Shuttle launches, and starting in 2017 with SpaceX.
“Today we had a review where we brought together members of the team from Axiom Space, SpaceX, and NASA to talk about the upcoming mission, and at the end of that review, the full team polled ‘go,'” said Ken Bowersox, who is NASA’s associate administrator of space operations, during the May 15 press conference.
The four-person Ax-2 crew features a diverse group of astronauts from the United States and Saudi Arabia who boast a myriad of scientific and flight experience, both on Earth and in space. Their mission duration will be 10 days at the ISS where they will conduct various scientific, commercial, and outreach activities while onboard the football field-sized orbiting platform.
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Ax-2 Commander, Dr. Peggy Whitson, is the only crewmember with spaceflight experience, but has a trailblazing history of firsts and records during her time as a NASA astronaut. Selected in the 1996 NASA Group, Dr. Whitson holds the record for most days spent in space by an American astronaut (665), conducting the most spacewalks by a woman (10), and the first woman to command the ISS (Expedition 16). After retiring from NASA in June 2018, she became a consultant for Axiom Space and will now hold the distinction of being the first woman to command a private space mission.
Ax-2 Pilot, John Shoffner, is a lifelong outer space enthusiast and STEM education advocate and the only non-government crewmember on Ax-2 to pay for his seat on the mission. Shoffner has been flying since he was 17 and has more than 8,500 flying hours under his belt, along with conducting more than 4,000 skydives with his wife, Janine, who he met while skydiving in 1999. To compliment his successful flying and skydiving careers, Shoffner is also a successful lifetime athlete, having competed in motorsports, waterskiing, and cycling, to name a few. He is able to pay for his seat on Ax-2 from his success as a businessman, having both founded and ran several startups during his career.
Ax-2 Mission Specialist, Ali Alqarni, is a captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) having logged almost 2,400 flying hours on the F-15S, T-38, T-6, and Cessna 172. After a visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center during his time with the RSAF while training with the US Air Force, Alqarni became hooked on space, and was selected by the Saudi Space Commission as an inaugural astronaut in the Saudi National Astronaut Program. Alqarni is a successful athlete with experience in mountain hiking and bungee jumping, along with completing numerous survival training courses and military deployments, as well.
Ax-2 Mission Specialist, Rayyanah Barnawi, is making history as the first Saudi woman to travel to space. She is a biomedical researcher with more than 10 years of cancer stem-cell research experience and was a research laboratory technician in the Stem Cell and Tissue Re-engineering Program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia when selected for Ax-2. Outside of research, Barnawi has extensive experience in the outdoors and as an athlete, having participated in hang gliding, scuba diving, hiking, and rafting all over the world. While on the ISS, Barnawi will be continuing her work on breast cancer and stem cell research.
On May 16, the Ax-2 crew discussed their experiences and excitement for the mission in a press conference during their pre-mission quarantine. Dr. Whitson noted how the crew had been going over mission timelines and procedures during their time in quarantine so they can be fully prepared for the mission prior to liftoff.
If the liftoff is successful tomorrow, Ax-2 is scheduled to dock with the ISS on May 22 at 9:30am EDT. If Ax-2 doesn’t meet its first launch window, a backup opportunity will occur on May 22, and with an uncertain future launch date if they aren’t able to fly this weekend.
“We’re looking at May 21 and if we don’t (launch) by the 22nd, we’ll stand down with the Axiom-2 mission and turn our focus to the SpaceX CRS-28 mission,” said Joel Montalbano, who is NASA’s manager of the ISS Program.
Along with being the second private space mission to the ISS, Ax-2 also serves as one step closer towards Axiom Space’s goal of constructing humanity’s first commercial space station, with the first module scheduled to be launched to the ISS in 2025 and will eventually orbit independently once more modules are attached.
For now, we wish Axiom-2 a safe and successful mission to the ISS as humanity continues its trek onward and upward to the stars!
As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!