Last night, an Axiom Space mission carrying a private crew blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, heading towards the International Space Station. The crew of four, led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, flew aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and docked with the ISS at about 9:12 a.m. Eastern time this morning. It’s the second time Axiom has ferried paying customers to the ISS. Last year’s inaugural flight was a milestone for space tourism. This time, it’s a glimpse at the future of the space station itself.
The ISS’s years are numbered. NASA has committed to supporting the station through 2030, at which point the agency wants to have the first components of a commercial successor in place. In 2021, the agency assigned contracts to a trio of companies—Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Nanoracks—to develop competing designs. NASA awarded a separate contract to Axiom in 2020 to develop a habitable module to attach to the ISS, with up to three modules to follow. The first one is expected to launch in late 2025, and once NASA and its partners decommission and deorbit the ISS, Axiom’s modules will detach and merge with each other, becoming a standalone space station.
But in the interim, private passengers and seasoned space agency astronauts will need to learn how to live and work side by side. Over time, as the number of visitors and modules add up, the interactions between Axiom passengers and traditional astronauts could change, especially once the private customers essentially have their own orbital hotel rooms. “These missions are very important to us at NASA as we try to open up space to a greater cross section of society. We think the economy in low Earth orbit will continue to expand, and some day NASA will just be a participant in that economy, buying services from private industry,” said Ken Bowersox, a NASA associate administrator, at a joint press conference last week with Axiom and SpaceX officials.
Ax-2, as this spaceflight is called, is carrying three paying visitors for an eight-day stay, plus Commander Whitson, who is Axiom’s Director of Human Space Flight and will build on her record as the American who has spent the most time in space—665 days. (Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka holds the global record at 878 days.) The other members of the quartet include American race car driver and businessman John Shoffner, Royal Saudi Air Force pilot Ali AlQarni, and biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi. AlQarni and Barnawi are the first Saudi Arabians to visit the ISS, and Barnawi is also the first Saudi Arabian woman in space. “I am very honored and happy to be representing all the dreams and hopes of people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home,” Barnawi said at a press conference with the rest of the crew on May 16.
The Saudi Arabian government is paying for their tickets, and Shoffner is paying for his own. Axiom declined to reveal the exact ticket price for this flight, although the coveted seats for Ax-1 in 2022 cost in the ballpark of $55 million apiece.
Barnawi and AlQarni’s presence onboard Ax-2 will mark a major success for the human spaceflight program of the Saudi Space Commission, which the Saudi government established in December 2018. Saudi Arabia has recently increased its involvement in space activities, including joining the US-led Artemis Accords and launching a handful of telecommunication satellites.