WASHINGTON — As Axiom Space gears up for its third private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, the company says it has refined the training needed to effectively carry out those missions.
Axiom Space is preparing for its Ax-3 mission, scheduled to launch as soon as January on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. The mission will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría with three customers on board: Walter Villadei of Italy, Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and Marcus Wandt of Sweden.
During a briefing about the mission Oct. 16, López-Alegría and his crewmates said the training for the projected two-week mission is going well, incorporating lessons from the company’s first two missions, including Ax-1 that López-Alegría commanded in 2021.
“It has changed in a fairly significant way,” he said of the training for Ax-3. “We have learned, from the two missions that have preceded this one, how to really optimize the training.” He noted that the training for Ax-1 included activities that “probably weren’t relevant” for the mission and didn’t emphasize “ops products,” or the ability of the crew to manage their time while on the station.
He said that his schedule of experiments would be reduced compared to Ax-1 to give him more time to assist his crewmates and reduce their reliance on the professional astronauts on the station. The company followed a similar approach on the Ax-2 mission in May, commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, and that worked well, he said.
He said SpaceX training for Crew Dragon has become more efficient as well. “I feel like we are asymptotically getting towards that perfect answer, and I would say we are very close to it by the time we did the training on Ax-3.”
Another factor that has helped in the training is that all four members of the crew have backgrounds as military pilots, with Gezeravcı and Villadei active members of their countries’ respective air forces. “This is an amazingly prepared crew. For a private astronaut mission, it’s exceptional,” said López-Alegría. “The level of training and experiences that these folks bring to our crew is really remarkable.”
The ongoing training, which started nearly six months ago, has been supported by their earlier experience in military aircraft, said Gezeravcı. “That was a really big benefit for all of us.”
Villadei, who will be pilot of Ax-3, has additional relevant experience: he flew to space in June on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial SpaceShipTwo mission, Galactic 01, accompanied by two other Italian researches to conduct a suite of experiments on that suborbital flight.
“The Virgin Galactic flight was an amazing experience,” he said. “From a training standpoint, it was very useful to me as a kind of initial test flight,” helping test skills and approaches that could be used on a later flight.
However, he stopped short of recommending a suborbital flight as a requirement for an ISS mission. “It’s not strictly necessary,” he said. “It’s an added value to put together this combination of different flights.”
Wandt is flying through an agreement involving Sweden’s space agency and the European Space Agency. He was selected as a “reserve” astronaut by ESA less than a year ago, able to be called up if a flight opportunity becomes available, and has yet to complete the full ESA astronaut training program.
“It’s been going really fast. I feel very confident, though, and the training has been good,” he said. “When it comes to my training, it’s a little bit backwards: I’m doing the mission training first and then we’re building on extra things that I didn’t have from the European Space Agency in the beginning.”