1 of 5 | Ax-2 commander Peggy Whitson and pilot John Shoffner prepare for the upcoming launch of the mission in May. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space
April 6 (UPI) -- NASA and Axiom Space announced the first possible launch date of the commercial Ax-2 Mission to the International Space Station on Thursday.
The SpaceX CRS-27 Dragon spacecraft is slated to launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 8 at 10:43 p.m. EST. Axiom Space hosted a mission overview press conference on Thursday to discuss the status of the mission.
A launch on May 8 will yield a 37-hour flight before docking with the space station.
Ax-2 will be the first private space mission involving both private astronauts -- pilot John Shoffner -- and astronauts representing foreign governments -- mission specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi of Saudi Arabia's first national astronaut program. It also will be the first Axiom mission commanded by a woman, space travel pioneer Peggy Whitson.
The mission is the 10th human space flight for the Dragon spacecraft nicknamed "Freedom." Dragon currently is being refurbished at Cape Canaveral in Florida and will be transported to the launch complex at the end of the month. This will be the first launch of this mission's Falcon 9 booster.
Medical experiments and future missions
There will be more than 20 research experiments conducted during the 10-day mission on the space station. Investigations will include work with tumor organoids, which are derived from human tissue, typically stem cells. Whitson said the crew's research with tumor organoids in microgravity might help predict and prevent cancers in the future.
Barnawi, who will be the first woman from Saudi Arabia in space, is experienced in breast cancer and stem-cell research. Whitson said her expertise will be useful for much of the mission's research into these areas.
"One of the investigations I'm most interest in is an in-space manufacturing investigation, looking at how microgravity affects nanoparticle assembly in the potential development of cartilage," Whitson said.
There also will be tech demonstrations that will be conducted in preparation of building Axiom's space station. The first module of the space station is planned for launch into low-Earth orbit in late 2025. The second will launch in 2026, followed by the third in 2026 or 2027, according to Michael Suffredini, Axiom Space CEO and president.
Space becoming increasingly commercial
Ax-2 marks another step toward the growing commercialization of space travel. Sarah Walker, director of SpaceX's Dragon Mission, said SpaceX is "committed to making low-Earth orbit accessible to everyone."
Angela Hart, manager of NASA's Commercial Low Earth Orbit Program Office, elaborated on the agency's vision for a global space marketplace, and what that will look like.
"We're expanding the scope of people being touched by these missions," Hart said. "You're going to see that exponentially as we keep doing this. As more people get involved -- you're going to see an explosion that will equate into this marketplace."
Hart added that private companies have been crucial to outreach efforts on the ground.
As for the timeframe of when a broad global space marketplace becomes a reality, the picture is not yet clear, but the goal is to have a "microeconomy" in low-Earth orbit by 2029, when private space stations might be a reality.
"Our hope is to have operating commercial space stations by 2029 so we don't have a gap between the International Space Station and those commercial space stations," she said. "When that happens, you're going to see another explosion of opportunity as those space stations will be able to offer services and activities that would not be seen on a government platform."
Ax-2 also represents a step toward broader global cooperation in space with U.S. agencies partnering with Saudi Arabia. Suffredini said Axiom Space has signed agreements for flights with the United Arab Emirates -- which is in orbit with SpaceX Crew 6 -- Turkey, Italy and Hungary.
"We're a bit agnostic. There are laws that we have to follow so we pay very close attention to those and, of course, there is technology transfer that we have to be very sensitive to," Suffredini said. "We intend to service a global marketplace. We think it's very important that we have the largest community of countries that explore beyond low-Earth orbit. We think what we're doing is not only serving a market, but more importantly it's helping us as a species learn to live off planet, which is going to be very important for us."