A crew of private astronauts will pay around $55 million each to spend about eight days at the International Space Station next January in what would be a new step for joint private-public space missions. Axiom Space, a Houston company, says the trip will be led by former NASA astronaut and space station commander Michael López-Alegría.
The proposed Ax-1 mission will use a SpaceX rocket to put three paying customers — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe – into low-Earth orbit on the space station. All of the trio are wealthy entrepreneurs and investors. The group will be under the command of López-Alegría, who is now an executive at Axiom.
It would be the first time an entirely private mission sends astronauts to the International Space Station. Russia sold the first ride to the station to a private citizen, American businessman Dennis Tito, in 2001.
All of the private astronauts for the upcoming mission are far older than the average NASA astronaut's age of 34. The space agency does not have age restrictions for astronaut candidates, who generally range from 26 to 46 years old. At 70, Connor is surpassed in age only by John Glenn, who flew on the space shuttle when he was 77.
Under NASA's rules for private astronaut missions, Axiom must ensure its astronauts meet the space agency's medical standards. They must also undergo training and certification procedures required for crew members of the International Space Station.
While the paying customers represent a new era of space tourism, they will also perform research as the space station whizzes over the Earth.
Connor will work with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects, Axiom says, while Pathy will collaborate with the Canadian Space Agency and the Montreal Children's Hospital. Stibbe plans to do experiments for Israeli researchers, working with the Ramon Foundation and Israel's space agency.
"We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I'm glad to say we've done that with this group," Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini said as the company announced the crew.
Similar missions are planned for the future, Suffredini said. Axiom hopes to arrange up to two trips per year — and the company also wants to build its own privately funded space station. Under that plan, its modules would be attached to the space station as soon as 2024. And when the space station is retired, the Axiom modules would break off to continue in orbit on their own.
NASA announced its plans to open the International Space Station to commercial activities in June 2019, saying it wants businesses to use innovation and ingenuity to speed up development of "a thriving commercial economy in low-Earth orbit."
The space agency has a plan to recoup the steep costs of a private citizen visiting the space station. Its pricing policy lists expenses such as a daily fee of $11,250 per person for "regenerative life support and toilet" and $22,500 per person for crew supplies such as food and air. The price sheet also includes a data plan, priced at $50 per gigabyte.