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SpaceX launches first private astronaut mission to International Space Station

By Amy Thompson
1/7
SpaceX launches first private astronaut mission to International Space Station
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Friday morning carrying the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. day. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., April 8 (UPI) -- With its 13th launch of the year on Friday, SpaceX made history, sending the first private crew of astronauts to the International Space Station for a week to conduct dozens of science experiments.

The Ax-1 mission lifted off at 11:17 a.m. EDT on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket that launched from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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The rocket climbed to orbit, achieving a nominal orbital insertion at 11:27 a.m. EDT.

While the capsule continued on to chase down the ISS, the rocket's first stage booster returned to Earth, successfully touching down on one of SpaceX's two Florida-based drone ships, "A Shortfall of Gravitas".

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"Godspeed Endeavour, enjoy the rest of your flight," mission control operators said during the launch broadcast. "Cheers."

Dragon Endeavour will now complete a series of planned engine burns as it aims to catch up with the ISS for a docking early Saturday morning.

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"We got Endeavour off the pad, it's on its way to the space station now," Kathy Lueders, NASA's head of human spaceflight. "This is a culmination of 60 years of spaceflight work. It's a huge mission."

The mission is the first-ever flight of private citizens to the orbital outpost on a commercial vehicle. Spanning 10 days, the mission will see the crew spend eight days aboard the orbiting lab, living and working on the station alongside the current crew.

Ax-1's passengers are retired NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría; Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur; Mark Pathy, a Canadian businessman; and Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli entrepreneur and former fighter jet pilot.

"This mission is opening a new era in human spaceflight," Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini told UPI in an interview.

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"It really does represent the first step, where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low-Earth orbit that aren't members of a government are able to take this opportunity," Suffredini said.

The Ax-1 crew is flying a refurbished Crew Dragon capsule, named Endeavour, which was used to transport SpaceX's first crew of two astronauts -- Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken -- into space in May 2020. The flight will mark the craft's third trip to ISS.

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Crews sealed the side hatch door around 10:00 a.m. EDT, before prep crews were cleared and the capsule access arm retracted. Fueling of the rocket started around 10:40 as weather at the site remained picture perfect.

Following liftoff, the Dragon Endeavour will take just under 20 hours to arrive at ISS. Axiom has said it may conduct an in-flight event during the journey, noting that it's possible they won't be able to check in with the crew until around 5:30 a.m. EDT Saturday.

Now that the crew has reached orbit, the quartet have taken off their space suits and had a snack, with several hours before they reach the space station.

"It's one hell of a ride," mission commander, Michael López-Alegría said after launch.

Following a 7:30 a.m. EDT arrival on Saturday, the crew will conduct more than 30 experiments. The return journey to Earth also will take about 24 hours, with the crew the splashing down off the coast of Florida next week.

The U.S. Space Force said Thursday there was a 90% of weather cooperating for Friday's launch. If the mission cannot lift off, backup attempts are possible on Saturday and Sunday. After that, it gets tricky.

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NASA's next mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System, is sitting on an adjacent launch pad, waiting to complete a round of pre-launch testing. Known as a wet dress rehearsal, the test of the vehicle and ground equipment includes fully fueling the rocket.

SLS started the testing phase on April 3, but a series of delays -- and the need to launch the Axiom mission -- forced NASA to stand down. Engineers plan to resume the test on Monday now that the Axiom-1 mission has launched.

It's success makes way for another mission: Crew-4. NASA's next batch of astronauts will launch to the space station as early as April 21.

The Ax-1 crew has been quarantined for several days, including during a launch rehearsal on Wednesday, while the rocket and its systems were also put through pre-launch testing.

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SpaceX, NASA and Axiom on Thursday said the mission was officially go for launch.

The crew has emphasized that they are not space tourists, but have trained the same as NASA astronauts and have a mission packed with as much science as possible.

"It's been a real privilege to work and train alongside these three remarkable gentlemen," López-Alegría said earlier this week at a news conference. "We have spent countless hours in simulations, in technical training and hands-on training and they have brought unbelievable commitment, discipline and an eagerness to learn to the endeavor.

"I can say with zero hesitation that we are ready to fly," he added.

Riding with science

López-Alegría works as Axiom's vice president of business development. The three remaining passengers have paid a combined $55 million for their seats and are ferrying more than 30 research projects to conduct while in orbit.

Among the experiments is an Israeli start-up's brain "headset" that Stibbe will carry with him as part of a series of experiments from the Ramon Foundation.

Stibbe, who is the second Israeli astronaut to reach space, helped create the foundation as a tribute to his friend and fellow countryman, Ilan Ramon.

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Ramon was the first Israeli to fly to space, taking part in a space shuttle mission in 2003 aboard Columbia. He and his crew were killed when the shuttle broke apart during re-entry.

"To be a part of this crew is a proof from me that there is no dream beyond reach," Stibbe said during the prelaunch news briefing.

"I think I speak for all of us that we understand this first civilian mission is a big honor and a big opportunity," Connor said. "But with that comes a big responsibility -- that is, to execute the mission correctly and successfully."

Other science and technology flying with the headset include a bevy of health-related investigations studying the effects of spaceflight on the human body.

On behalf of Mayo Clinic, Connor is working on a project involving cardiac senescent cells, which are heart cells that have stopped dividing and are linked to age-related diseases. Researchers expect the data will shed light on the impact of space travel on these types of cells, and also on overall heart health.

Pathy will conduct experiments focused on chronic pain and sleep disturbances during space travel. The microgravity environment, along with exposure to radiation and isolation, are thought to amplify these symptoms.

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He will also lead Earth observation activities aimed at improving analysis of the impacts of climate change, urbanization and other human factors on the ecology and human habitation of North America.

Not the last one

If all goes as planned, the mission will be the first of many, as NASA is working with Axiom to finalize a second private astronaut mission next year.

That mission, called Ax-2, will be lead by another retired NASA astronaut -- Peggy Whitson.

Whitson has flown into space three times and, in April 2017, set a NASA record for longest amount of time in space by one astronaut. She is now the head of human spaceflight at Axiom.

"It's so exciting. Personally, for me, it's a dream come true," Whitson said a during news conference. "When I retired from NASA, I wasn't sure if this commercial industry was going to take off as fast as it did and I'm so thrilled [for this crew] and I'm so excited I'm going back."

Busy times on orbit

This mission kicks off a busy stretch of activities on the orbital outpost. The Axiom crew will join seven other astronauts currently on board: three NASA astronauts, one German, and three Russian cosmonauts.

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Living space will be tight, but NASA officials have managed this many residents before and say it will be akin to a giant camping trip in space. To that end, the space agency sent an additional crew sleeping quarters last year.

While the Axiom-1 crew is completing a science-packed mission, NASA's next group of astronauts are waiting for their own flight.

Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins, Bob Hines, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti are scheduled to launch on April 21 -- just days after Axiom-1 lands. Crew-4 is scheduled to be on station for several days before the current crew -- Crew-3 -- is sent home.

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