After several delays, the Axiom-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft made history as the nation's first all-private space mission, successfully returning to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) mid-Monday.
A New Frontier For Private Spaceflight
Earlier this month, Houston-based private commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space successfully landed four passengers on the ISS. The passengers arrived at ISS on April 9 and were scheduled to depart for Earth on April 19. Bad weather delayed departure until April 24.
The mission, dubbed AX-1, featured three paying passengers - real estate developer Larry Connor, investor Mark Pathy, and defense businessman Eytan Stibbe. The men, who all paid for the trip, were joined by Axiom Space Vice President Michael Lopez-Alegria.
The crew members landed safely in the ocean off the Florida coast around 1:00 p.m. Monday. In all, they spent 16 days in space.
While at the ISS, the AX-1 crew members helped astronauts with over a dozen experiments. A blog post from NASA detailed their contributions and cooperation throughout the mission, an apparent success from start to finish.
The First Men Or Not?
The AX-1 mission appears to be historically significant. It was the first private launch vehicle and first private crew mission to the ISS. However, billionaire Dennis Tito stands as the first person to fund his own trip to space in 2011 when he paid $20 million to Roscosmos (Russia's space authority) for a trip to the ISS.
Tito spent a similar length of time in space as the AX-1 mission passengers. There is currently no word on the dollar amount the AX-1 passengers paid for their trip.
Much To Look Forward To
The success of the Axiom Space mission could clear the company for numerous future missions.
An AX-2 mission is already in preparation. In June 2021, Axiom Space and SpaceX signed an agreement for three all-civilian flights to the ISS. The second of those missions, AX-2, is expected to occur sometime in the fall. It will be led by Peggy Whitson - a decorated former NASA astronaut. Whitson has spent a total of 665 days in space across three separate missions in her career - the most of any NASA astronaut.
Whitson now works as Axiom's director of human spaceflight and will lead the company's second mission. So far, there is no mention of an AX-3.
The missions tie into Axiom's endgame - building the first commercial space station. Dubbed Axiom Station, the facility is expected to launch its first module as early as 2024. The module will be tested on the ISS before detaching to create a free-floating space station operated by Axiom Space.
With the ISS expected to be decommissioned sometime this decade, NASA is turning to collaboration with private companies to build a new facility. Axiom Space has emerged as a frontrunner. Successful private flights could help improve their standing as a potential partner.
The Houston-based company faces some stiff competition. Blue Origin is also in the race for the ISS replacement contract, having announced its Orbital Reef in November 2021. The Orbital Reef is a partnership between Blue Origin and several other agencies and is tentatively expected to launch between 2025 and 2030.