With the launch just weeks away, SpaceX and Axiom are making their final preparations for the first all-private, all-commercial Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Axiom-1 will be the first all-commercial mission flown to the ISS by SpaceX in partnership with Axiom Space.
Axiom-1 will launch using a flight-proven Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 from historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center. The mission will launch on March 30, 2022, at 2:46 PM EDT (18:46 UTC). Axiom-1 will be the second commercial Crew Dragon flight and the first mission to use a Crew Dragon that has flown three times.
In partnership with SpaceX, Axiom-1 is set to be the first of its kind. The mission was announced in March 2020 with the plan to send a single Axiom trained astronaut alongside three private astronauts on at least an eight-day mission. Axiom’s overall plan is to conduct four missions to the ISS with up to two flights per year to align with the ISS’s busy schedule.
These missions were envisioned under the Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA. The announced missions came just months after NASA and Axiom’s partnership with Axiom-built modules to extend the ISS. Known as the Axiom segment, it will later be used as an all-private all-commercially owned space station.
Two modules for the Axiom segment are currently in fabrication with Thales Alenia Space. These will be launched in 2024 and 2025 and will be docked with the Forward Port of the Harmony module.
In January 2021, the four-person crew was finalized and announced for the mission. The Axiom-1 commander is a former NASA Spanish-American astronaut and current vice president of Axiom, Michael López-Algería. López-Algería has previously flown to space four times on both the Space Shuttle and Soyuz spacecraft.
On his final spaceflight for NASA, he commanded the Expedition 14 mission for 215 days on the orbiting lab. He currently holds NASA’s all-time EVA duration record. He will also be the first person to command both a civil and commercial spaceflight mission.
López-Algería’s backup is former NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson. Whitson herself is a record-holding astronaut for most time in space by a NASA astronaut.
She holds the record for the oldest woman to reach orbit, the oldest woman to conduct an EVA, and fifth highest overall EVA time. She will command the Axiom-2 mission currently planned for late 2022 or early 2023.
Larry Connor will be Axiom-1’s pilot for the mission and is a first-time astronaut. Connor is a founding and managing partner at The Connor Group real estate firm and leads in non-profit sectors. He is currently collaborating with several scientific and research groups to conduct science while he is in space.
Connor will be the second oldest person to reach orbit at 72. Connor’s backup is John Shoffner, who is a racing driver and pilot. He will be the pilot of the Axiom-2 mission.
Mark Pathy of Canada will serve as Axiom-1 mission specialist. He is a chairman of Stingray Group and currently owns an investment company. He will be the 11th Canadian astronaut to fly to orbit.
The fourth and final crew member is Eytan Stibbe of Israel who will serve as the second mission specialist. Stibbe is a retired Israeli Air Force Colonel who served under the command of Ilan Ramon. Ramon later became the first Israel astronaut, losing his life on Space Shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission. Both were personal friends following their time at the air force.
In Ramon’s honor, Stibbe founded the Ramon Foundation to help teach science, aviation, and space in Israel. On behalf of the foundation and the help of the Israeli government, Stibbe will fly. His part of the mission is called Rakia, the title of the book published from the diary of Ramon that was with him on Columbia and survived the accident.
The three customers each have research-focused based goals in partnership with several organizations.
Connor has partnered with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic to research the impact of senescent cells while in space. These cells have been linked to several age-related diseases and the reaction to micro-gravity could allow new treatments for those diseases.
Pre- and post-flight MRIs will be taken to see the effects of spaceflight across civilians of different ages. He will also work with BioServe Space Technologies of the University of Colorado for some experiments.
Pathy has partnered with The Montreal Children’s Hospital, as well as The Royal Canadia Geographic Society for 12 experiments. Many of these experiments will test Spaceflight-Associated Nero-Ocular Syndrome and the relationship between chronic pain and microgravity. Pathy will also test Earth observations while working with the first in-space demonstration of two-way holoporation communication.
Stibbe, with the help of the Ramon Foundation, will conduct scientific, artistic, and educational outreach initiatives to further Israel’s space initiatives.
He will perform experiments across astrophysics, agriculture, optics, communication, biology, healthcare, neurology, and ophthalmology.
In May 2021, NASA approved the Axiom-1 mission to the ISS. Shortly after, training for the crew began with a flight in a Zero-G plane. A couple of days later, the crew began centrifuge training. The Axiom-2 crew underwent the same training in preparation for their flight as well as for their roles as backups for Axiom-1.
In June 2021, Axiom and SpaceX signed a new contract to use Crew Dragon on the Axiom-2 through 4 missions. In December 2021, the Axiom-2 mission was approved by NASA.
The crew continued to train at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. This training includes suit-up, time in the spacecraft simulator, and learning all of Dragons systems. In August, the crew began training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF). The training at the SVMF would allow the crew to get familiar with the systems and layout of the ISS.
In December 2021, the mission patch for the crew was released, featuring the ISS in the middle with four solar arrays showing the flags representing the multinational crew. In the background, a cascading plane of blue represents the Earth’s atmosphere seen from low Earth orbit (LEO). Four bright stars are showing near the top representing the four crew, and in the middle is an atom representing the science conducted on the mission.
— Axiom Space (@Axiom_Space) December 21, 2021
At Axiom Space’s headquarters in Houston, Axiom has also completed the construction of their own Mission Control Center (MCC-A).
After months of training, the crew was approved for the Axiom-1 mission in February 2022. Training is continuing with joint simulations with NASA, the European Space Agency, JAXA, and SpaceX to fully familiarize themselves with their journey to the ISS.
A couple of weeks before launch, the crew will begin the standard pre-launch quarantine.
Falcon and Dragon:
The Crew Dragon to be used for the Axiom-1 mission is Capsule serial number C206-3, also known as Endeavour. Endeavour was the first Dragon to send humans to space on the SpaceX Crew Demo-2 mission in May 2020. It was later the first Crew Dragon to be reused on the SpaceX Crew-2 mission in April 2021, which was Endeavour’s first long-duration mission on the ISS.
Just before Crew-3 arrived at the ISS, Crew-2 successfully returned to Earth. Endeavour splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico following its 199 days in orbit, Crew Dragon’s longest mission to date. While the splashdown was nominal, one of the four parachutes was delayed 75 seconds in its inflation. The delayed opening didn’t add any risk to the crew and was within the margins to land safely.
This delayed opening was also seen a couple of months later on the SpaceX CRS-24 mission. Once again, it didn’t add any risk, and the Dragon safely splashed down off the Florida coast. Both NASA and SpaceX have observed the delayed opening during previous parachute testing.
Currently, both are reviewing the parachute data ahead of the Axiom-1 and Crew-4 missions, and both believe the parachute delays are no-cause for immediate concern but want to understand why and how to avoid it in the future.
Since Crew-2’s return in November 2021, Endeavour has been in refurbishment and inspections. As a part of the refurbishment process, SpaceX replaces part of the PICA-X heat shield, nose-cone, and any other parts that require replacement ahead of launch.
Once refurbishments were completed, Endeavour was taken to the SpaceX Dragon processing facility at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station where it went through a test campaign of electromagnetic interference, acoustic, and systems verification.
SpaceX will now mate a new unpressurized trunk section to complete the Dragon spacecraft which will then be delivered to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at LC-39A. From there, the Dragon will be integrated onto the flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket.
Axiom-1 will use a flight-proven Falcon 9 to support the mission. The exact booster to be used has not been confirmed.
Following the Starlink Group 4-9 mission, set to launch from 39A on March 3, SpaceX will begin work to configure LC-39A to support the crew mission. To prepare the pad for Axiom-1, the service equipment on the Transporter Erector (T/E) will be replaced to support Dragon instead of a payload fairing. The team will also verify that the ground support equipment can communicate with Dragon and its crew as well as Range Operations and Mission Control personnel.
Once the modifications are complete, the completed stack will be rolled out to the pad to begin testing. The most major test will be a static fire, where the Falcon 9 countdown is conducted without the crew.
During a static fire, the launch team will work through a mock-up launch countdown, including fueling Falcon 9 and test firing all the first stage engines for a few seconds. This static fire will be conducted a few days before launch.
The launch team and crew will also conduct a dry dress rehearsal, which includes suit-up, transportation to the pad, boarding the Dragon, and a mock countdown to launch. Teams and crew will also practice procedures in case an evacuation is needed at the launch pad.
As a mission to the ISS, a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) will be conducted a week before launch. The FRR involves all the partners of the ISS and SpaceX to give the final approval before launch.
Launch day is currently slated for March 30. A few hours before launch, the crew will be transported to the launch site. Once the final “Go” for launch is given, the Crew Access Arm is retracted and the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort systems will be armed.
Dragon Endeavour will reach the ISS the day after launch. Dragon will then perform an automated docking to the Forward port of the Harmony module on March 31. Crew-3’s Dragon, Endurance, will relocate to the Zenith port shortly before Axiom-1’s launch.
Once docked, Axiom-1 will remain on station for at least nine days. They will join the recently arrived Soyuz MS-21 crew as well as the Crew-3 astronauts currently on the Expedition 67 mission. On the station, the crew will conduct science and maintenance on the orbiting lab.
After their nine-day mission, the crew will then return to Earth with a splash down either in the Gulf of Mexico or off the east coast of Florida. Undocking and splashdown are currently scheduled for April 9, pending weather at the recovery area.
A few days later, on April 15, the SpaceX Crew-4 mission will launch to the ISS. Crew-4 will be the fourth long-duration mission for SpaceX at the ISS. Shortly after Crew-4’s launch, Crew-3 will then return to Earth following their six-month mission in space.
(Featured image: Portrait of the Axiom-1 crew at SpaceX headquarters. Credit: Axiom Space)
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