WASHINGTON — NASA has approved plans by Axiom Space to fly a third private astronaut mission to the International Space Station as soon as November, although with no details yet about who will go on the flight.
NASA announced March 14 it signed a “mission order” with Axiom for the mission, designated Ax-3 by the company. Launch is scheduled as soon as November, a date that will depend in part on the traffic of other vehicles heading to and from the station.
NASA solicited proposals for a third and fourth private astronaut mission in September 2022, after previously selecting Axiom for the Ax-1 mission that went to the ISS in April 2022 and Ax-2, scheduled for launch as soon as May. In its announcement about Ax-3, NASA said it would announce plans for the fourth private astronaut mission, planned for 2024, after completion of negotiations with an unspecified company.
Axiom was the only company to bid on the second private astronaut mission, according to NASA source selection statements published last August. Both Axiom and a second company, Shuttle IO Technologies, bid on NASA’s original request for a third private astronaut mission in 2021, but the agency rejected both given low ratings from the review process. NASA did not disclose how many companies submitted proposals in this new solicitation for the third mission.
The announcement of Ax-3 disclosed few details about the mission other than it will spend 14 days at the ISS, slightly longer than the planned 10 days of Ax-2. The mission, like Ax-1 and -2, will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Axiom Space did not disclose the crew for Ax-3 in the announcement. Like the previous two missions, it will be commanded by a former NASA astronaut with flight experience, a requirement NASA enacted after Ax-1.
NASA said in the announcement that the formal announcement of the crew will come only after it is approved by NASA and the other ISS partners. While Axiom Space had named the commander and pilot of Ax-2 — Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner — in 2021, the other two crew members, Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni, were not named until Feb. 12.
Axiom executives previously said that government-sponsored astronauts, like the two Saudis, would make up the bulk of customers on its upcoming private astronaut missions. “I expect that Ax-3 will be largely a country customer kind of flight with our professional astronaut,” said Michael Suffredini, chief executive of Axiom, in a call with reporters in January. He added that will be repeated on Ax-4. “I think that, between those two flights, maybe one private individual will fly.”
Axiom hopes to continue flying private astronaut missions to the ISS as it develops a series of commercial modules it will attach to the station, which will serve as the core of a standalone space station after the retirement of the station. “Our desire is to fly two missions a year,” Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut who commanded Ax-1 for Axiom, said in a Feb. 26 speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado.
He noted in that speech that NASA had picked Axiom for both the third and fourth private astronaut missions, although the company was still in contract negotiations with NASA on them.
Once Axiom has its modules on the ISS, which will include its own docking port, the company will have more freedom to fly crews to them without having to compete for private astronaut mission opportunities, which NASA has currently capped at two a year. “We’ll still have to go through NASA and will still have to comply with the ISS program rules,” López-Alegría said, “but I feel like we’ll have a little bit more leeway to do whatever we want.”