Whitson to command second Axiom Space mission

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WASHINGTON — A former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the most time spent in space by an American will command Axiom Space’s second commercial mission to the International Space Station, the company announced May 25.

Axiom said that Peggy Whitson will serve as commander of the Ax-2 mission to the ISS. She will be joined by John Shoffner, a private astronaut from Knoxville, Tennessee, who will be a customer of the mission and serve as pilot.

Whitson joined the NASA astronaut corps in 1996 after several years at NASA as a research scientist. She was on the ISS for three-long duration missions in 2002, 2008 and 2016–17, spending 665 days in space, the most for any American astronaut but trailing eight Soviet and Russian cosmonauts. She performed 10 spacewalks over those three ISS missions.

Whitson, who also served as chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office, retired from NASA in June 2018. She joined Axiom as an astronaut consultant and was named in January to be the backup commander for Axiom’s Ax-1 mission to the ISS, commanded by Michael López-Alegría, another former astronaut.

“I’m thrilled to get to fly to space again and lead one of these pioneering missions, marking a new era of human spaceflight,” Whitson said in the statement.

Shoffner is also training as the backup pilot for Ax-1. He is a pilot and auto racer with an interest in life sciences research. Shoffner and Whitson plan to train for both spacecraft operations as well as genomics research, the latter being done with 10x Genomics, a California biotechnology company.

Shoffner said in the statement that it was an “honor” to train with Whitson for the upcoming flight, and was excited about the prospect of doing biotech research on the station. “I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low Earth orbit,” he said.

“In the time we’ve already spent together as crewmates, it’s clear to me that John will be an excellent pilot and researcher,” Whitson said of Shoffner. “It’s a pleasure to take him under my wing.”

Axiom, in its announcement of Whitson and Shoffner, did not disclose when Ax-2 would launch, or even what spacecraft the mission will use. The Ax-1 mission, flying on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, is scheduled for no earlier than January 2022. NASA is offering up to two private astronaut missions a year to the ISS, but Axiom will have to compete with other companies for those missions.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in private astronaut missions, even outside of Axiom,” Angela Hart, manager of commercial low Earth orbit development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said at a May 10 briefing where NASA announced it had finalized an agreement with Axiom for the Ax-1 mission. That interest, she said, exceeded the supply of mission opportunities.

Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space, said at that briefing that his company had lined up not just Ax-1 and 2 but also a third and fourth mission, but disclosed no details about those later missions. “We’re prepared to fly on a cadence of about twice a year, but like everyone, we have to compete for the opportunity,” he said then.

Axiom did not announce who will fly with Whitson and Shoffner on Ax-2. However, the television network Discovery announced May 18 that the winner of a reality TV show it is developing, called “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?”, will fly on the Ax-2 mission, spending eight days on the ISS.

Discovery billed the show as a “real-life space adventure,” putting contestants through a series of “extreme challenges” over eight episodes to see who is best suited for a flight to space. The announcement didn’t describe the selection process for contestants, but noted that a “panel of expert judges” will pick the winner, who will fly on Ax-2.