TITUSVILLE, Fla — NASA has completed an agreement for a second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station with Axiom Space, the only company that bid on the opportunity.
NASA announced Aug. 31 that it signed a “mission order” with Axiom Space for the mission, scheduled for the second quarter of 2023. The Ax-2 mission will fly four private astronauts to the station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for a 10-day stay.
NASA announced in December it selected Axiom for the second private astronaut mission (PAM) opportunity, at the time scheduled for some time between the fall of 2022 and the spring of 2023, and would start negotiations with the company on the formal mission order. Axiom flew the first such PAM, Ax-1, in April of this year.
“Our new Ax-2 crew, together with a full mission manifest of science, outreach, and commercial activities, will continue to increase utilization of the International Space Station National Laboratory and demonstrate to the world the benefits of commercial space missions for all humanity,” Derek Hassmann, chief of mission integration and operation at Axiom, said in a statement.
Axiom has yet to disclose the full crew for Ax-2. The company said last year the mission would be commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, an Axiom employee, with a customer, John Shoffner, serving as pilot. Axiom has not announced who the other two customers flying on the mission will be.
NASA said in its statement that Axiom will present proposed prime and backup crews to the ISS partners. That includes a new requirement that the mission be commanded by a former astronaut. “Following review and approval from NASA and its international partners, the prime crew members for the mission will be named,” the agency said, with training scheduled to start for the full crew in the fall.
NASA announced its support for two private astronaut missions to the ISS a year in 2019 as part of a broader low Earth orbit commercialization strategy that includes support for commercial space stations intended to ultimately succeed the ISS. It solicited proposals in mid-2021 for the second and third PAM missions after originally selecting Axiom for the first PAM, Ax-1.
“With each new step forward, we are working together with commercial space companies and growing the economy in low Earth orbit,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in the statement. “In addition to expanding access to orbit for more people, we are also hoping these private astronaut missions will help the industry learn and develop the skillset to conduct such missions.”
NASA published Aug. 15 the source selection statements for the two PAM missions it requested proposals for last year. For PAM 2, the opportunity NASA awarded to Axiom Space, the document reveals that Axiom was the only company to submit a proposal.
NASA graded the proposal favorably, with an overall score of “Good”, in the middle of a five-step adjectival rating system. “Overall, the Axiom Space proposal was a competent proposal representing a credible response to the solicitation, with strengths and weaknesses essentially balancing each other,” the agency concluded.
NASA credited the proposal with several strengths, including its selection of a former NASA astronaut as mission commander a year before NASA made that a requirement, as well as its choice of partners for the mission. However, the agency raised concerns about a lack of information “to support its proposed claims to financially support and execute the proposed mission” as well as its ability to carry out a wide range of activities during the mission.
Axiom’s proposal for Ax-2 also included an unspecified activity “for which NASA policy decisions are currently in work and which could impact that activity.” Axiom submitted a revised proposal that removed that activity.
When NASA announced last December the selection of Axiom Space for the second PAM, it said it decided not to award a third PAM at the same time. “NASA will gather lessons learned from the first private astronaut flight as well as other applicable station activities and announce a new flight opportunity in the future,” the agency said then.
According to the source selection statement, NASA received two proposals for the third PAM, from Axiom Space and Shuttle IO Technologies. Both, though, received the lowest rating of “poor” and NASA decided to select neither.
Axiom’s proposal has some of the same strengths of its other one, but was given a weakness because “their proposal significantly lacked conceptual information regarding their proposed primary objective which prevented NASA’s ability to evaluate the merit of the proposed mission concept,” according to the statement. Axiom offered a secondary mission proposal in case “interest is not sufficient to proceed with the primary mission,” but the agency ruled that was an additional proposal that could not be considered under procurement regulations.
The public version of the source selection statement doesn’t describe what that primary objective was, and portions of the document are redacted. The agency also gave the company a weakness because of a lack of financial information, including “identification of the source of funds to cover the deficit of the AX-2 proposed mission.”
The Shuttle IO proposal was even worse, lacking details on how it would carry out the mission, raise funding for it, or identify key suppliers and partners. The company proposed “a wide variety of mission objectives” that would “result in high technical complexity and would require significant NASA resources, facilities and/or services” to be carried out in a short time, the document stated. Those mission objectives were redacted in the document.
The company has disclosed few details about its plans. On its website it says it is “a luxury marketplace that connects people to space travel experiences enabling more commercial astronauts” but doesn’t elaborate on those efforts, inviting people instead to sign up for a waitlist.
The Ax-2 mission will be the first to use an updated pricing policy for private astronaut missions, where NASA will charge $4.8 million per flight for integration and basic services and $5.2 million per flight for ISS crew time. There are additional per-person, per-day charges for food and other crew provisions, transporting those items to the station and disposing trash from the station that vary based on mission requirements. There are also charges for cargo and crew time for “private astronaut mission specific commercial activities.”