SpaceX mission carrying former NASA astronaut, 3 paying customers docks with space station

ByJackie Wattles
Monday, May 22, 2023
SpaceX mission carrying 3 paying customers docks with space station
A SpaceX capsule carrying a decorated former NASA astronaut and three paying customers linked up with the International Space Station.

A SpaceX capsule carrying a decorated former NASA astronaut and three paying customers linked up with the International Space Station on Monday, kicking off a historic weeklong mission for the crew.

After launching from Florida on Sunday afternoon, the crew spent about 16 hours aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft as it maneuvered toward the space station, which orbits about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

The spacecraft officially docked with the space station at 9:12 a.m. ET.

The mission, called AX-2, was put together by the Houston-based company Axiom Space and marks the second all-private mission to the orbiting outpost, meaning it's being carried out by commercial companies rather than a government.

It also makes history as stem cell researcher Rayyanah Barnawi becomes the first woman from Saudi Arabia to travel to space.

The AX-2 mission is one in a lineup of missions designed to spur private sector participation in spaceflight - particularly in low-Earth orbit, where the space station lies.

Meet the AX-2 crew

The AX-2 crew is being led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, now an Axiom employee. With this mission, Whitson also became the first woman to command a private spaceflight.

"I'm really excited about returning to space, but even more excited about welcoming three new astronauts," Whitson said in a dispatch from the Crew Dragon spacecraft after launch.

One of the three paying customers joining Whitson is John Shoffner,an American who made his fortune in the international telecom business and founded the hardware company Dura-Line Corp.

Saudi Arabia also paid to fly two citizens: Barnawi and Ali AlQarni, a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

"I am very honored and happy to be representing all the dreams and all the hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home," Barnawi told reporters last week.

The hatch on the Crew Dragon spacecraft is expected to open after 11 a.m. ET. After that, the AX-2 crew will be able to exit the 13-foot-wide capsule and join the seven astronauts already aboard the space station.

The AX-2 passengers will spend about eight days working alongside the existing crew members. During that time, they'll work through a lineup of more than 20 investigations and science projects - including stem cell and other biomedical research.

This marks Whitson's first return to space since 2017. Her extensive prior experience on the station made her a US record holder for the most cumulative days logged in space, and she ranks eighth on the all-time list.

SpaceX's giant new rocket experienced a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" minutes after blasting off of the launchpad.

Whitson has flown on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as well as NASA's space shuttle, but she said preparing for this mission was "obviously different" because it involved training to operate SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which has only been flying astronauts since 2020.

"That's been one of the biggest challenges for me is learning this particular spacecraft," she said. "But I've really enjoyed it."

Barnawi and AlQarni are only the second and third Saudis to travel to space. The first wasPrince Sultan bin Salman, who spent about a week on a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985.

Saudi Arabia has faced abarrage of criticismfrom the Biden administration and Congress over its human rights record, though the ties between the US and Saudi Arabiaremain strong.

AlQarni said he believes Arabs' participation in spaceflight is a "great opportunity" that can inspire the region.

It will "hold a big message. ... We are holding hands, we are working together for the betterment of humanity and just trying to innovate," he said during a news briefing last week.

The future of private spaceflight

This isn't the first time individuals have paid their way to space. A company called Space Adventuresbrokeredseveral such missions to the space station in the early 2000s, booking rides for wealthy thrill seekers on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

Axiom brought that business model to the United States, partnering with SpaceX to establish a framework for getting an array of customers to the space station. The company's first mission, AX-1, launched in April 2022 andmarkedthe first time private citizens traveled to the space station from US soil.

Axiom's goal is to make these missions routine, offering more opportunities for people who are not professional astronauts to experience spaceflight. During a prelaunch news conference, Derek Hassmann, chief of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space, said his company expects to see more customers sponsored by governments similar to the AX-2 passengers from Saudi Arabia.

"Government astronauts are indeed a key piece of our business plan," he said. "Early in the program ... it wasn't clear to us what the balance would be between private individuals and government astronauts since nothing like this had ever been done before. But it's become clear to us that the government ... market is key, and we're pursuing that actively."

Axiom leadership envisions private spaceflight will continue even after the space station is retired, which NASA anticipates willhappen in 2030. Axiom isoneof several UScompanies gunning tocreate a new, privately owned space station. It's an effort supported by NASA, which aims to bolster private sector participation closer to home so the agency can focus on investing in deep-space exploration.

The AX-2 crew will work alongside the professional astronauts on the space station, though they will operate under different schedules. Once on board, they'll rely on existing crew to show them the ropes, including the kitchen and bathroom. And certain areas will remain off-limits, such as the air lock that astronauts use to conduct spacewalks, according to Hassmann.

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