The first all-private team of astronauts sent to the International Space Station (ISS) arrived safely at the orbiting research platform on Saturday to begin a week-long science mission hailed as a milestone in commercial spaceflight.
The rendezvous came about 21 hours after the four-man team – which includes the second Israeli in space, philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe – lifted off on Friday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, riding atop a SpaceX-launched Falcon 9 rocket.
The rocket was 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.
The Crew Dragon capsule lofted to orbit by the rocket docked with the ISS at about 8:30 A.M. EDT (1230 GMT) on Saturday as the two space vehicles were flying roughly 250 miles (420 km) above the central Atlantic Ocean, a live NASA webcast of the coupling showed.
The final approach was delayed by a technical glitch that disrupted a video feed used to monitor the capsule's rendezvous with ISS. The snafu forced the Crew Dragon to pause and hold its position 20 meters away from the station for about 45 minutes while mission control trouble-shooted the issue.
With docking achieved, it was expected to take about two hours more for the sealed passageway between the space station and crew capsule to be pressurized and checked for leaks before hatches can be opened, allowing the newly arrived astronauts to come aboard ISS.
The multinational Axiom team, planning to spend eight days in orbit, was led by retired Spanish-born NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company's vice president for business development.
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His second-in-command was Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 crew were Israeli investor-philanthropist Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.
Stibbe became the second Israeli to fly to space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.
They will be joining the existing ISS occupants of seven regular, government-paid space station crew members – three American astronauts, a German astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts.
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.
'Not space tourists'
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.