Axiom mission arrives at ISS

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WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four private astronauts arrived at the International Space Station April 9 for a scheduled eight-day stay.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour docked with the station at 8:29 a.m. Eastern, about 21 hours after it reached orbit after its launch on a Falcon 9 from the Kennedy Space Center. The docking took place about 45 minutes behind schedule as the Dragon loitered 20 meters from the station while the ISS crew and ground controllers worked on an issue with video they needed to support the docking.

Hatches between the Dragon and station opened nearly two hours later, and the four members of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission entered the station: mission commander Michael López-Alegría, pilot Larry Connor and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy. López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, is an Axiom employee and Connor, Stibbe and Pathy are customers of Axiom, paying an estimated $55 million each.

The four are scheduled to spend eight days on the ISS conducting research and performing other commercial activities and outreach. “We’re here to experience this, but we understand there’s a responsibility,” said Connor during a briefing welcoming ceremony on the ISS. “The responsibility is for this first civilian crew to get it right, and that’s what we’re fully committed to.”

The time in space is not all serious, though. López-Alegría said his fellow crewmembers were all stunned by their first views of the Earth from space. “It’s just an amazing experience,” he said during the welcoming ceremony, which he also used to give and Connor, Stibbe and Pathy astronaut pins from the Association of Space Explorers, an international organization of astronauts.

The Ax-1 mission is part of a busy schedule of activities on the ISS that includes the later Crew-4 mission that will transport four NASA and European Space Agency astronauts to the station, also on a Crew Dragon, and the later return of the four NASA and ESA Crew-3 astronauts currently on the station.

“We have a really tight schedule,” Dana Weigel, NASA ISS deputy program manager, said at the Ax-1 postlaunch briefing April 8. NASA wants to launch Crew-4 in time to allow Crew-3 to return by around May 10 after a five-day “handover” when both crews are on the ISS. That would allow, in late May, the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on a second uncrewed test flight called OFT-2.

Crew-4 is currently planned for launch April 21, but Weigel called that a “really aggressive schedule.” She noted uncertainly about both launch and splashdown weather that could affect those schedules.

“Our goal is to have Crew-4 launched by the end of April, and then have Crew-3 down by mid-May to be ready for OFT-2,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, at the postlaunch briefing.