Philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe reached the international Space Station on Saturday, after becoming the second Israeli in space. The 64-year-old is part of the first all-private astronaut team ever flown to the International Space Station.
Stibbe took off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, riding atop a Falcon 9 rocket furnished and flown by Elon Musk's commercial space launch venture SpaceX, as part of a mission initiated by Axiom Space, a privately held company.
A retired combat pilot who formerly had the most kills of enemy aircraft in the Israeli armed forces, Stibbe was a founder of the LR Group, which enjoyed close ties with Angolan authorities during and since the country’s civil war. Stibbe has since left that company.
He is also a member of the board of directors of the Ilan Ramon Foundation, named after the first Israeli to fly to space, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In a blog post, Stibbe wrote that he plans on taking several surviving pages of the diary Ramon kept in space to the ISS.
Stibbe will remain on the International Space Station for eight days and perform scientific experiments. The flight ticket comes with a hefty price tag of $55 million. The former fighter pilot is funding the trip with offshore dollars, with his payment for the flight coming from a company that is registered in the British Virgin Islands.
The State of Israel, Haaretz found, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses related to this mission, while funds for other parts of the mission were registered in the books of the nonprofit Ramon Foundation, something that may save Stibbe substantial tax costs.
The mission is being led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Axiom's vice president of business development, who will be joined by Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy.
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The Ax-1 crew may appear to have a lot in common, with many of the wealthy passengers taking suborbital rides lately aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services offered by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively. But Axiom executives said their mission is more substantive.
"We are not space tourists," Lopez-Alegria said during a recent news briefing, adding that the Axiom team has undergone extensive astronaut training with both NASA and SpaceX, and will be performing meaningful biomedical research.
The team will be carrying equipment and supplies for 26 science and technology experiments. These include research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity, company executives said.
Launched to orbit in 1998, the ISS has been continuously occupied since 2000 under a U.S.-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
While the space station has hosted visits by civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory.
They will be sharing the weightless work space alongside seven regular crew members of the ISS – three U.S. astronauts, a German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.
Axiom said it has contracted with SpaceX to fly three more missions to orbit over the next two years. NASA selected Axiom in 2020 to design and develop a new commercial module to the space station, which currently spans the approximate size of a football field. Flight hardware for the first Axiom module is currently undergoing fabrication, the company said.
Plans call for eventually detaching the Axiom modules from the rest of the outpost when the ISS is ready for retirement in around 2030, leaving the smaller Axiom station in orbit as a commercial-only platform, Ghaffarian said.