In a significant step towards advancing commercial space endeavors, NASA has announced it signed an agreement with Axiom Space for the fourth private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission, designated as Axiom Mission 4 (Ax-4), is scheduled to launch no earlier than August 2024 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A crew of four individuals – who have not been revealed yet – will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft; they will spend up to two weeks docked to the Station.
The collaboration aims to continue the ongoing transition of low Earth orbit activities from being solely government-driven to a realm where NASA is one among numerous commercial customers. “I am pleased to see another milestone in our efforts to transition low Earth orbit from primarily a government-sponsored activity to one where NASA is one of many customers,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “NASA has been directed to develop commercial platforms to sustain a continuous United States presence in low Earth orbit and to transition beyond International Space Station operations. These private astronaut missions are helping to pave the way for that transition.”
SpaceX already launched two missions for Axiom - Ax-1 and Ax-2, with Ax-3 planned for later this year. "Our Axiom Space team is looking forward to a fourth mission to the International Space Station,” stated Axiom President & CEO Michael Suffredini. “Each mission allows us to build on the foundation we have set for the world's first commercial space station, Axiom Station, preparing our teams and orbital platform to succeed the International Space Station operations in low Earth orbit. These missions are instrumental in expanding commercial space activities and access to space for individuals and nations around the world, as well as developing the knowledge and experience needed to normalize living and working in microgravity.”
As part of the selection process, Axiom Space will propose four crew members for Ax-4, whose profiles will be reviewed by NASA and its international partners for approval. The prime crew members will be confirmed upon approval. The selected crew members will undergo rigorous training with NASA, international collaborators, and SpaceX, which is contracted by Axiom Space to provide launch services for transportation to and from the ISS. SpaceX will also familiarize the private astronauts with spacecraft systems, procedures, and emergency protocols of the Dragon spacecraft.
Axiom Space is securing NASA services through both a mission-specific order and a reimbursable Space Act Agreement. The mission-specific order encompasses crew supplies, cargo delivery, storage, and in-orbit resources for daily use. This order also allows for up to seven contingency days on the space station. The pricing for these services is in line with NASA's policy for offerings above baseline capabilities.
Furthermore, the order outlines capabilities that NASA may derive from Axiom Space, including the return of scientific samples requiring cold storage and other cargo, along with the private astronaut mission commander's assistance in conducting NASA-related science tasks.
The financial arrangement is supplemented by Space Act Agreements, under which Axiom Space will reimburse NASA for various enabling services such as crew member training and utilization of facilities at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX, the launch provider, has also established reimbursable agreements with NASA Kennedy for launch services.
Axiom Space's selection for both the third and fourth private astronaut missions was based on proposals submitted in response to NASA's September 2022 NASA Research Announcement. The evaluation process focused on the provider's capability to successfully execute the missions, NASA's capacity to support them, and the missions' contributions to the broader goal of commercializing low Earth orbit activities.
NASA's partnership with Axiom Space signifies another significant stride towards expanding human presence and economic activities in space, laying the groundwork for a new era of space exploration and utilization.
The selection of the crew members for Ax-4 is underway, and further announcements are anticipated later this year. With private sector involvement playing an increasingly pivotal role, these missions exemplify the growing synergy between government and commercial entities in advancing space exploration and research.
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About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.