They paid millions of dollars to be the first passengers to reach the International Space Station (ISS) on a private flight. Three businessmen and a former NASA astronaut boarded a Dragon capsule on Friday April 8 at the Kennedy Space Center under blue skies in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket took off at 11:17 a.m. local time, 11:17 a.m. French time.
→ CONTEXT. Traffic jam on takeoff, at the American space center
The Dragon capsule is due to dock with the ISS on Saturday around 12:30 p.m. French time. Upon arrival, the crew will receive a guided tour of the station and then get to work. This is only the sixth time SpaceX has flown humans (the fifth to the ISS). The first flight took place less than two years ago.
A note worth tens of millions of dollars
If novices have already been to the ISS since the 2000s, this is the first time that a private company, Axiom Space has organized the trip. This is done in collaboration with SpaceX and NASA, paid for the use of its station. “We are extending the land borders of trade to space”welcomed Bill Nelson, the boss of the American space agency, shortly before takeoff.
The commander of the mission, named Ax-1, is the American-Spanish Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut of the American space agency, who has already visited the ISS. The other three crew members paid tens of millions of dollars each for the experiment. The role of pilot is occupied by the American Larry Connor, at the head of a real estate company.
A scientific mission
The Dragon capsule is due to dock with the ISS on Saturday around 7:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. French time). Upon arrival, the crew will receive a guided tour of the station and then get to work. The four men have a busy program, with some 25 experiments, on aging, heart health, or even stem cells. “The experiments I take up there, which come from Canadian universities and research institutions, would probably not have had the opportunity to be tested in space” without this mission, argued Mark Pathy, a Canadian businessman, boss of an investment company.
→ UNDERSTAND. Becoming an astronaut, “a daily training of several hours”
For this reason among others, the members of Ax-1 refuse to be called space tourists. “I think it is important to differentiate space tourists from private astronauts”, said Larry Connor. The first ones “spend 10 to 15 hours training, five to 10 minutes in space. (…) We spent between 750 and more than 1,000 hours training. »
Towards a future private station
Axiom Space has reached an agreement for a total of four missions with SpaceX. NASA has already formally approved the principle of a second mission, AX-2. For the American company, this is a first step towards an ambitious goal: the construction of its own space station.
“It’s important for us to be able to repeat” such assignments “on a smaller scale”, explained Michael Suffredini, the leader of the company. The first module of this private station should be launched in September 2024. The structure will first be attached to the ISS, before becoming autonomous when the latter is retired, a priori around 2030.
This movement to privatize low orbit is encouraged by NASA, which wishes to generate revenue through these private missions. This would allow it, in the long term, no longer to have to manage the operation of a station, but rather to hire the services of private structures, in order to concentrate on distant exploration.