Houston-based Axiom Space announced today, Thursday, March 5 that it had signed a contract with SpaceX to fly an all-private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for an undisclosed sum of money.
Elon Musk’s company will take four people to the ISS on the mission in the latter half of 2021, three of them paying customers, in the first entirely commercial human spaceflight to the orbiting station.
The three space tourists who have paid for their seats will be joined by a commander “professionally trained by Axiom” on the mission, which will last 10 days including one day each way in transit and eight days aboard the ISS.
The four crew will join up to six American and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts who live and work on board the station, although the exact crew that will be on board at the time is not yet known. Axiom said there would be room for all 10 if needed on the station regardless, however.
“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in a statement.
“This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space – a first for a commercial entity. Procuring the transportation marks significant progress toward that goal, and we’re glad to be working with SpaceX in this effort.”
Axiom said it plans to offer two missions a year to the ISS for “professional and private astronauts,” alongside developing plans for its own private space station. In January this year, the company announced it would attach three new modules to the ISS, which could detach and form a separate space station after the ISS is retired later this decade.
For SpaceX, this mission is the first to the ISS offered entirely to a private customer, with no NASA astronauts on board. Launching an all-private missions to the ISS would be a major success for SpaceX, and open up many other potential ventures for Crew Dragon.
In March 2019, the company launched Crew Dragon on an uncrewed test flight to the ISS for the first time, followed by an in-flight abort test in January 2020, a key safety mission to verify the spacecraft was safe for humans.
The first crewed test flight of Crew Dragon is planned in the coming months, a flight with two NASA astronauts on board, while SpaceX has also signed a deal with Space Adventures to send paying customers on an five-day orbiting flight around Earth next year.
“Since 2012, SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA and later this year, we will fly NASA astronauts for the first time,” SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in the statement.
“Now, thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration.”
The cost of a seat on Crew Dragon has been estimated as $55 million, meaning Axiom’s flight could cost anywhere up to $220 million. While expensive, this remains considerably cheaper than the $86 million per seat Russia charges on its Soyuz spacecraft, which was used to fly seven space tourists to the ISS in the 2000s.
Axiom said it would announce the crew for the mission at a later date. And it noted that its subsequent missions would not neccessarily be limited to just four passengers, with Crew Dragon having space for up to seven people to fly on board each flight.
SpaceX is one of two companies that has been awarded billions of dollars by NASA to develop crewed spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, which was retired in July 2011. The other company, Boeing, has faced growing questions about its CST-100 Starliner vehicle, after it emerged the vehicle had a number of problems during an uncrewed test flight in December 2019.