WASHINGTON — SpaceX and Axiom Space will have only two opportunities this month to launch a private astronaut mission to the International Space Station before having to wait potentially several months before getting another shot.
At a May 15 briefing, officials from the two companies as well as NASA announced they had completed a flight readiness review for the Ax-2 mission to the station, giving their approval to proceed with a May 21 launch. Liftoff of the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. Eastern that day, setting up a docking May 22 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern.
That is the first of two launch opportunities for the mission, with a backup launch date May 22. NASA officials said on the call that if the mission doesn’t launch by May 22, they would have to wait until after one or more other missions scheduled to launch to the station.
“If we don’t get off by the 22nd, we’ll stand down with the Axiom 2 mission and turn our focus to the SpaceX-28 mission,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, referring to a cargo Dragon mission currently scheduled to launch June 3. “Axiom, NASA and SpaceX will get together and look for the next best opportunity.”
That next best opportunity could be months away. The current ISS manifest calls for the SpaceX cargo mission launching June 3 and remaining at the station about a month. It will be followed by the first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which Montalbano said remains on track for a July 21 launch. The next crew rotation mission, Crew-7, is slated for later this summer, he added.
The organizations will also have to work around use of Launch Complex 39A for other missions. That pad is the only one that can support both Dragon missions as well as Falcon Heavy launches. Current manifests call for a Falcon Heavy launch for the U.S. Space Force in July, another for EchoStar’s Jupiter-3 communications satellite in August, and NASA’s Psyche mission in October, which has a narrow launch window to reach its asteroid destination.
Delays in another Falcon Heavy launch created the scheduled crunch for Ax-2. A Falcon Heavy launched Viasat’s ViaSat-3 Americas satellite April 30 after nearly two weeks of delays caused by poor weather and technical issues. That delayed Ax-2, which had been scheduled to launch May 8.
The delay will also condense the Ax-2 mission. Axiom Space originally planned to have the Dragon docked to the ISS for 10 days, but at the May 21 briefing officials disclosed that it had been shortened to eight days.
“In order to make the mission fit within the flow of activities that ISS has lined up, we made the joint decision to reduce the docked time to eight days,” said Derek Hassmann, chief of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space.
He said the company went through the activities planned for the mission and prioritized them, elevating research the four-person crew planned to conduct. “In the end, there was no impact to the research objectives,” he said. “There was some media outreach and other things that we wanted to do but weren’t a high priority that were dropped.”
He noted later in the briefing, though, that the two astronauts from Saudi Arabia on Ax-2, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, still had a “whole series of media events” scheduled during the flight, particularly with students. They will be joined on the mission by commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, and John Shoffner, an American private astronaut who will serve as pilot of Ax-2.
There are no technical issues that would preclude a May 21 launch, said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. The schedule calls for a “dry dress” rehearsal with the crew on May 19, followed by a static-fire test of the Falcon 9.
The launch will be the first crewed mission to attempt a booster landing back at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1, the former Launch Complex 13, rather than on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean. “That was made available because we have a little bit of extra Falcon performance,” he said. That is preferred to a droneship landing since it removes weather conditions at the droneship as a launch constraint and makes it easier to get the booster ready for its next launch.
That extra performance emerged from the experience of launching Starlink satellites. “We’ve always had this kind of capability before. We just weren’t sure we would always get the performance,” he explained. “The number of Falcon flights we’ve flown have allowed us to say that performance is available and can be used where it’s needed to be used.” Returning the booster to the Cape will be standard on all future crewed launches, he added.