Crew-2 Crew Dragon
The Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour, with the Crew-2 astronauts on board, seen from the International Space Station shortly after undocking Nov. 8. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA selected Axiom Space to perform a second commercial flight to the U.S. segment of the International Space Station on a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

NASA announced Dec. 13 that it picked a proposal from Axiom Space for a second in a series of what the agency calls private astronaut missions to the ISS, part of its overall low Earth orbit commercialization strategy. The mission, lasting up to two weeks, will launch between the fall of 2022 and late spring 2023.

“NASA evaluated the mission proposal based on Axiom’s ability to execute it successfully, NASA’s ability to support it, and its contribution to the agency’s mission and goal of low Earth orbit commercialization,” NASA said. The agency did not disclose how many proposals it received in response to a solicitation this summer, although agency officials noted earlier this year that the demand for private astronaut missions exceeded available flight opportunities.

Axiom Space is currently preparing for that first private astronaut mission, Ax-1, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than Feb. 21. That 10-day mission to the ISS will include three Axiom customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe — commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría. NASA said the Ax-1 crew members “still are completing final evaluations by NASA and its international partners.”

Even before NASA issued the request for proposals for the second private astronaut mission opportunity, Axiom was already starting preparations for the Ax-2 mission. The company announced in May that former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command the mission and a customer, John Shoffner, will be the pilot. The company has not disclosed the other two members of the crew.

While the NASA announcement did not explicitly state that Ax-2 will use a Crew Dragon, like Ax-1, Axiom announced in June that it had ordered three more Crew Dragons for its anticipated Ax-2, 3 and 4 missions, which it projected to take place through 2023.

Depending on the timing of Ax-2, SpaceX could end up flying four our more Crew Dragon missions, with Ax-2 joining Ax-1 as well as the Crew-4 and Crew-5 missions for NASA. A SpaceX executive hinted at that during a Dec. 13 panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week.

“Next year is going to be even more exciting,” said Tom Ochinero, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX. “We’ve got at least three human spaceflight missions, probably more, next year.”

In a statement, Axiom said the second award from NASA affirms that it is a “key partner” in NASA’s LEO commercialization strategy, an effort that also includes development of a commercial module it plans to install on the station as soon as 2024 as a precursor to a commercial space station.

“Axiom’s broad human spaceflight expertise and the training, professionalism and productivity of its historic first two crews will set a standard for all future private astronaut missions to follow,” the company stated.

Ax-2 will also be subject to a revised pricing policy for private astronaut missions NASA announced in May. That revised policy, intended to fully account for costs of services, reflected a sharp increase from the original 2019 pricing policy, which remains in place for the Ax-1 mission. Axiom, at the time of the announcement, downplayed the effect of the higher prices charged by NASA on its mission plans.

When NASA issued the solicitation this summer, it planned to award a third private astronaut mission that would fly in the second half of 2023. However, NASA did not select Axiom or another company for that mission. “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 stated.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...