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SpaceX launches first fully private mission to the International Space Station

An all-private crew blasted off from Kennedy Space Center for a flight to the International Space Station on Friday morning, marking another milestone in the evolution of manned spaceflight and the growth of the commercial space sector.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 11:17 a.m., carrying three wealthy entrepreneurs, each having paid $55 million for the mission, and a former NASA astronaut, who serves as their guide. While private citizens flew for years to the space station on russian rockets, the mission – which was commissioned by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company – is the first entirely private mission to the station. It is also the first time private citizens have traveled to the station from US soil.

The international team includes Larry Connor, the managing partner of an Ohio real estate group; Mark Pathy, managing director of a Canadian investment company; Eytan Stibbe, businessman and former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot; and Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who is vice president of Axiom. They are expected to reach the station Saturday around 7:45 a.m. EST. They will spend eight days on the station before returning home in SpaceX’s autonomous Dragon spacecraft.

During a live broadcast of the mission, Kate Tice, a SpaceX engineer, called it “an absolutely perfect launch.” And when communicating with Mission Control, Lopez-Alegria said “it was a lot of fun.”

The flight comes at a time when private citizens are increasingly coming out of the atmosphere and greatly expanding the ranks of space travelers. Blue Origin, the space company run by Jeff Bezos, and Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Richard Branson, have taken crews on suborbital journeys that skim the limits of space and offer passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The Axiom mission, however, is much more ambitious – taking the crew to the space station, which orbits Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. And instead of just gazing at the stars and reveling in the wonders of weightlessness, the crew say they’ll be engaged in meaningful research and, as a result, will bristle at being labeled “space tourists”. .

Speaking to reporters before the flight, Connor said he thought “it’s important to differentiate between space tourists and private astronauts”.

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He said crews spent between 750 and more than 1,000 hours training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and at SpaceX headquarters outside Los Angeles. And he said they would be engaged in more than two dozen science experiments aboard the orbiting lab.

Connor, for example, plans to collaborate with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic on research projects aimed at better understanding aging; Pathy works with the Canadian Space Agency and the Montreal Children’s Hospital on health-related projects.

Axiom is planning a series of privately funded missions to the space station, capitalizing on a NASA policy change that until 2019 prohibited private flights to the station. The company is also developing its own space station which it hopes will serve as an eventual replacement for the International Space Station.

As a NASA astronaut for 20 years, Lopez-Alegria flew into space four times. In 2006, he flew on the Russian Soyuz with Anousheh Ansari, a private citizen who had paid a brought in $20 million for the trip. At first, Lopez-Alegria was skeptical, fearing her presence would be a distraction for the professionally trained crews. But he said his diligence and “absolute professionalism” convinced him and his teammates.

“I think the hesitation is natural when you come from a military pilot training and then spend your whole career studying to want to be an astronaut, and then someone cuts the line, if you will,” said- he told the Post recently. year. “It was a bit hard to swallow.”

He said he expected “some resistance” from station crews, but it was the Axiom crew’s job “to convince them”.

At a press conference this week, Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s COO, said the crew “wants to be the best possible private astronauts you can imagine. They want to be good hosts of the house, if you will.

Last year, SpaceX flew another mission with four private citizens. Instead of heading to the space station, the crew stayed inside the Dragon capsule, which circled the Earth for three days. The mission, dubbed Inspiration4, was funded by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who has since commissioned three other private spaceflights from SpaceX. Two would again be in the Dragon, and the third would be the first crewed flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which NASA intends to use to land astronauts on the moon.

Axiom’s launch was repeatedly delayed as NASA worked to test its Space Launch System rocket on an adjacent launch pad. During the test, NASA intends to fully power the rocket, which would send astronauts to the Moon, and run a simulated countdown. But he ran into trouble with a valve designed to relieve pressure inside the rocket during propellant loading.

In a statement, NASA said he would “investigate the issue at the pad level”, which would inform “the way forward”. Despite the setback, NASA said it “provided teams with a valuable opportunity to practice and ensure modeled loading procedures were accurate.”

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.