WASHINGTON — As Axiom Space gears up for its third private astronaut mission to the International Space Station in less than a month, SpaceX is still determining what launch pad it will use for it.

At a Dec. 13 online briefing, Axiom Space, NASA and SpaceX said they were preparing for a Jan. 9 launch of the Ax-3 mission, using a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9. Liftoff is scheduled for 8:18 p.m. Eastern that day, with a docking with the ISS at about 5:15 a.m. Eastern Jan. 11.

The launch will use the same Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 booster as the Ax-2 mission in May, said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX. “Both vehicles are on track with margin to support the Ax-3 launch in early January,” she said.

Missing from the announcement, though, was where the launch would take place. All previous Crew Dragon missions have used Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, but SpaceX has been building a tower at nearby Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to support cargo and crew launches. There had been reports in November that SpaceX would use SLC-40 for the Ax-3 mission to avoid a scheduling conflict with another launch at LC-39A.

Walker said that a decision on which pad to use for Ax-3 is still pending. “We are nearing completion with preparations of SLC-40 to support Dragon missions, if needed,” she said. That includes completion of the interior of the crew access arm and “final external approvals” from regulatory agencies.

A launch from LC-39A, though, on the current schedule would clash with another Falcon 9 scheduled to launch from that pad as soon as Jan. 12 carrying the Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lunar lander. That mission must launch from LC-39A since only that pad is equipped to fuel the lander shortly before launch. Intuitive Machines confirmed a Jan. 12 launch date in a Dec. 4 statement announcing the arrival of the lander at Cape Canaveral for prelaunch processing. That mission has a launch period that runs through Jan. 16.

SpaceX announced plans last year to build a tower at SLC-40 to serve as a backup for LC-39A in the event a launch accident took that pad out of service. The company has, more recently, emphasized the flexibility that comes from having two pads that can handle Dragon missions.

“We’re super-excited to have this flexibility, and we did it because we’re seeing the growing demand for Dragon missions,” Walker said. She noted that LC-39A would remain the “priority pad” for Dragon launches. “But having the second pad available enables us to be ultra-responsive to customer needs and growing demand by moving a Dragon over to SLC-40 when the need arises.”

Ax-3 is slated to be a 14-day mission commanded by Axiom’s chief astronaut, Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who also commanded the Ax-1 mission in April 2022. Walter Villadei, an Italian astronaut who was a backup on Ax-2 and also went on the first commercial Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in June, will be the pilot. Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and Marcus Wandt, an ESA reserve astronaut from Sweden, will be mission specialists.

The four are scheduled to perform more than 30 experiments during the flight along with outreach activities. “We had more research than we could fit into the mission, which I think is a great example of how much demand there is for that kind of work,” said Matt Ondler, president of Axiom Space.

Ax-3 is the third in a series of private astronaut missions to the ISS with a fourth, Ax-4, planned for later in 2024. “The Axiom-3 mission represents the continued progress that industry and NASA are making to build a robust commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial LEO development program. Such missions “help to stimulate the demand side of the equation on low Earth orbit economy and our overall vision for a long-term sustainable in low Earth orbit.”

Axiom is also using the missions to gain experience ahead of the launch of a series of commercial modules it will attach to the ISS. Those modules will later form the core of a standalone Axiom space station after the retirement of the ISS. Ondler said in the briefing that the first of those modules is now scheduled to launch to the ISS at the end of 2026, about a year later than the company previously announced.

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...