1 of 6 | A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft sits on top of a Falcon 9 rocket as it is being prepared to launch NASA's SpaceX Crew-3 to the International Space Station from Florida in November. File Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 28 (UPI) -- NASA and Houston-based Axiom Space are in the final stages of training and preparation to launch the first all-private astronaut mission, Ax-1, to the International Space Station in late March, mission leaders said Monday.
But don't call the crew -- three billionaires paying $55 million each -- space tourists, Michael López-Alegría, former astronaut and Ax-1 mission commander, said during a press conference.
"The crewmates have worked very hard," López-Alegría said. "They're busy people and they've taken a lot of time out of their lives to focus on this. And it's definitely not a vacation for them.
The private crew members are businessmen Larry Connor from Ohio, Mark Pathy of Montreal and Eytan Stibbe Israel. They will focus on space health research, outreach to people on Earth while they are in space and other microgravity science experiments during the 10-day stay.
"We are not space tourists. I think there's an important role for space tourism, but it is not what Axiom is about," López-Alegría said.
Axiom plans to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket March 30. Liftoff is set for 2:46 p.m. EDT from Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
López-Alegría, a vice president with Axiom, flew to space four times over a 20-year career at NASA. He will become the first person to command both a civil and a commercial human spaceflight mission.
SpaceX is excited to support the mission with Axiom, one of four such private missions planned, Benjamin Reed, senior director, Human Spaceflight Programs for SpaceX, said in the virtual press conference.
Reed said work on the rocket and capsule are "coming along well" at SpaceX's Florida facilities.
"They are on track for being ready to launch here in about a month," he said.
Former NASA official Michael Suffredini, who once managed the International Space Station program, leads Axiom as president and CEO.
He said Axiom, not NASA, will take the lead on communications and publicity about the mission, while NASA will practice oversight and monitoring of the space station as usual.
Ax-1 only plans to use the U.S. portions of the station, so concerns about Russian aggression in Ukraine won't have much of an impact, he and NASA officials said.
The mission is taking more than 25 research experiments that have been developed for microgravity, said Christian Maender, director of Axiom's in-space research and manufacturing.
"They brought to us a portfolio of work and they said, we really want to do some of these things in orbit. And it's been a pleasure to work with them and with NASA and the National Lab to really bring these things to fruition," Maender said.
NASA astronauts also will help pack the Dragon with additional experiments that have been waiting for a ride home, he said.
Connor, an Ohio real estate and financial technology entrepreneur, has flown fighter jets and will be the mission pilot, according to Axiom's mission description.
Connor previously said he plans to collaborate with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic on medical research, while providing lessons to students at Dayton Early College Academy in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Pathy, chief executive of Mavrik, a Montreal investment firm, plans to collaborate with the Canadian Space Agency and the Montreal Children's Hospital on health-related projects.
Eytan Stibbe plans to conduct experiments for Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs coordinated by the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency, along with educational outreach to Israeli students.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA's third crew to the International Space Station at 9:03 p.m. November 10 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo