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NASA and Axiom finalize deal to send first private crew to ISS

NASA and space tourism company Axiom this week finalized a deal that will see the first private crew enjoy a week-long stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

Texas-based Axiom has already revealed the identities of the three private citizens who will take part in the Ax-1 mission, which is currently scheduled for January 2022.

Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, American entrepreneur Larry Connor, and former Israeli Air Force pilot Eytan Stibbe, together with mission commander and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, will soon begin intensive training ahead of their special trip.

“The first private crew to visit the International Space Station is a watershed moment in humanity’s expansion off the planet and we are glad to partner with NASA in making it happen,” said Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini.

Speaking at a news conference this week, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, matched the grandiosity of Suffredini’s comments, saying that the upcoming mission marked “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight,” adding, “History can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point, I think, with human spaceflight.”

Each member of the Ax-1 mission has forked out a reported $55 million for the experience, with most of the money going to launch provider SpaceX and the rest to NASA for the stay on the ISS. During the space expedition, the private astronauts will work on their own research and philanthropic projects, with health-related activities expected to feature heavily.

NASA said that providing opportunities for private citizens to head to space gives the agency an opportunity to grow a commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.

It seems that the private missions are generating plenty of interest, too, with Angela Hart, manager of commercial low-Earth orbit development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, suggesting that the ISS may not be able to host all of the wannabe astronauts.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in private astronaut missions,” Hart said at the news conference, adding, “At this point, the demand exceeds what we actually believe the opportunities on the station will be.”

Part of the issue is the limited time available, as the aging ISS could be decommissioned before the decade is out. Once it’s gone, the only space station in low-Earth orbit is likely to be the one currently being constructed by the Chinese, though Russia is also thought to be considering building its own. Whether either of those orbiting outposts will be open to hosting private citizens remains to be seen.

While the Ax-1 mission will take the first private crew to the ISS, the space station has already hosted private citizens on an individual basis. Former rocket engineer Dennis Tito, for example, paid $20 million for the experience in 2001, and since then six further space tourists have spent time on the ISS, with each one making the journey aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in missions organized by Virginia-based Space Adventures.

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