Axiom Space’s third private astronaut flight is underway with the first all-European space crew. Astronauts from the Italian, Turkish and Swedish Air Forces are on their way to the International Space Station with Axiom’s commander, a dual citizen of Spain and the United States. After docking on Saturday, they will spend 14 days aboard the ISS conducting experiments and enjoying the experience.

The Axiom-3 mission lifted off at 4:49 pm ET on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX leases from the government.

Falcon 9 launches Ax-3, Dragon’s 12th human spaceflight mission pic.twitter.com/VaswQz7npo

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 18, 2024

Inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule were Axiom’s Michael López-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut on his sixth spaceflight, and three passengers: Italy’s Walter Villadei, Sweden’s Marcus Wandt, and Türkiye’s Alper Gezeravci, the first Turkish astronaut. Villadei, Wandt and Gezeravci are all government military pilots.

Crew of Axiom-3, L-R: Marcus Wandt (ESA/Sweden), Michael López-Alegria (Axiom), Walter Villadei (Italy), Alper Gezeravci (Türkiye). Credit: Axiom Space

During their 14-day visit, they will conduct 30 scientific experiments. including an Italian experiment to investigate the aggregation of amyloid beta proteins that may cause diseases like Alzheimer’s, Turkish research on novel space alloys, and a Swedish experiment on bone loss.

Wandt was selected as a reserve ESA astronaut last year, but some ESA member states like Sweden are arranging to fly their astronauts to ISS through ESA-managed commercial agreements with Axiom rather than waiting for an opportunity through the usual channels with NASA.  Called “project astronauts,” they fly one-time short-duration missions instead of a regular 6-month mission like the members of the permanent ESA astronaut corps.

The three Axiom-3 passengers are not professional astronauts and will return to their regular jobs at the end of this mission. That differentiates them as commercial or private astronauts even though they all are sponsored by their governments.

Docking is scheduled for Saturday at 4:19 am ET. Although this is not a NASA mission, they will spend 14 days aboard the ISS and NASA will provide coverage of docking, hatch opening and welcome remarks beginning at 2:30 am ET.

Private astronauts have visited the ISS since 2001, but initially only on Russian vehicles. NASA disapproved of such flights for many years, but had a change of heart in 2019. Private astronauts must reimburse NASA for use of the ISS.

López-Alegria also commanded Axiom’s first private astronaut mission in 2022. Peggy Whitson, another former NASA astronaut who now is Axiom’s director of human spaceflight, commanded the second in 2023.  NASA and Axiom have agreed that all these missions must be commanded by an experienced astronaut familiar with the ISS so the passengers do not unnecessarily interfere with ISS operations.  The ISS is permanently staffed with seven astronauts and cosmonauts. The current crew, Expedition 70, is composed of three Russians, two Americans, a Japanese and a Dane.

ISS Expedition 70, L-R: Nikolai Chub (Roscosmos), Konstantin Borisov (Roscosmos), Andreas Mogensen (ESA/Denmark), Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos), Jasmin Moghbeli (NASA), Satoshi Furukawa (JAXA), Loral O’Hara (NASA). Credit: NASA

An international partnership among the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, the ISS just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the launch of its first modules in 1998. The Earth-orbiting laboratory has been permanently occupied by international crews since November 2000.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The ISS is old and will not last forever. The current plan is to deorbit it in 2030 when commercial space stations are ready to replace it. Axiom is one of the companies planning to build a commercial space station and sees these private astronaut flights as a step towards that goal. Axiom’s CEO, Michael Suffredini, is a former ISS program manager who left the agency to found Axiom with Kam Ghaffarian.

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