WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched Axiom Space’s third private astronaut mission Jan. 18, sending a veteran former NASA astronaut and three astronauts from European governments to the International Space Station.
A Falcon 9 lifted off at 4:49 p.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and placed the Crew Dragon spacecraft Freedom into orbit. Freedom separated from the upper stage about 12 minutes after liftoff.
The launch had been scheduled for Jan. 17 but was delayed less than six hours before the scheduled liftoff when SpaceX announced it would take an additional day “to complete pre-launch checkouts and data analysis on the vehicle.”
SpaceX did not offer specifics on the delay, but both Axiom Space and NASA later said the delay was to provide more time to review parachute straps known as energy modulators in the Crew Dragon. SpaceX said in a Jan. 16 prelaunch briefing that they found issues with those straps, intended to regulate the load on the main parachutes when extracted from the capsule, during the return of the CRS-29 cargo Dragon mission in December. SpaceX said that may have been caused by twists in the straps, and technicians untwisted the energy modulators in the parachutes on this Crew Dragon before launch.
The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the ISS Jan. 20 at 4:19 a.m. Eastern. It will remain docked to the station for about two weeks before returning to Earth with its four-person crew.
The Ax-3 mission is the third such mission organized by Axiom Space, which is using them to gain experience in spaceflight operations as it prepares to install commercial modules on the station that will later form the core of a standalone commercial space station upon the retirement of the ISS. Axiom flew Ax-1 in April 2022 and Ax-2 in May 2023.
Ax-3 is commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who also commanded Ax-1. It is the sixth flight for López-Alegría, who flew on three shuttle missions and one long-duration ISS mission while with NASA.
The other three members of the crew represent European governments. The pilot of Ax-3 is Walter Villadei, an Italian Air Force officer who trained as the backup pilot for Ax-2 and flew on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight of its VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane in June 2023.
The two mission specialists on Ax-3 are Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and Marcus Wandt of Sweden. Gezeravcı is a pilot in the Turkish Air Force and is the first person from that country to fly to space. Wandt, a former Swedish Air Force pilot, is the second Swede to fly to space.
Wandt was selected a reserve astronaut by the European Space Agency in November 2022 and is the first person from that class to go to space. ESA and the Swedish space agency arranged for his flight as ESA’s first short-term “project” astronaut. A second project astronaut, Poland’s Sławosz Uznański, is expected to go the ISS as soon as later this year, also through Axiom Space.
Those missions are different from long-duration ISS missions and future Artemis missions flown by ESA’s permanent astronaut corps. “It’s a fixed-term contract he has with the agency, while career astronauts have permanent contracts,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, of Wandt during a Jan. 11 media briefing. ESA’s five new career astronauts will complete their training in April and some could be assigned to their first ISS missions as soon as May.
Derek Hassmann, chief of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space, said at the Jan. 16 prelaunch briefing that Axiom plans to continue flying short-duration private astronaut missions to the ISS at a pace of two a year through the launch of its first commercial module, now planned for late 2026. Ax-4 is tentatively planned for launch in the fall of 2024, but neither Axiom nor NASA have announced firm plans for missions beyond Ax-4.
NASA is supporting private astronaut missions as part of its broader strategy to stimulate development of commercial space stations intended to succeed the ISS when it is retired at the end of the decade. NASA awarded a contract to Axiom in 2020 giving it access to a docking port on the station for its commercial modules and has funded Space Act Agreements with Blue Origin and Voyager Space to support work on those companies’ station concepts.
“I am certainly hopeful that they are going to be successful,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson of private space station ventures on Axiom’s webcast of the Ax-3 launch. NASA, he noted, is counting on one or more commercial stations to be successful to support NASA’s needs as well as other customers, so that NASA can focus on its lunar and Mars exploration ambitions.
Ax-3 featured the third flight of Freedom and the fifth of the Falcon 9 booster. Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said at the prelaunch briefing that while SpaceX plans to be able to fly Dragon spacecraft up to 15 times each, it is currently only using Falcon 9 boosters on crewed missions that have flown no more than five times, even as SpaceX pushes to extend the lives of those boosters to up to 40 missions.
“When we feel comfortable expanding that envelope as well, we’ll continue to work that with all of our customers,” he said of booster reuse on crewed flights.
After the Crew Dragon reached orbit, Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability who is also chief engineer for the mission, called the crew. “I think you’re demonstrating the ultimate in reuse: a reused commander, a reused Dragon and a reused Falcon,” he said. “Or maybe ‘flight-experienced’ is a better word.”