SpaceX to launch private citizens for 8-day visit to space station

SpaceX is set to launch another crew of private astronauts, including two representing Saudi Arabia, to the International Space Station on Sunday afternoon in a mission chartered by Axiom Space.

The launch is set to lift off at 5:37 p.m. Eastern time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s the second group of private citizens to fly with Axiom to the space station. The first mission, in 2022, included three wealthy businessmen who were accompanied by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, who serves as Axiom’s chief astronaut.

If it takes off as planned, the autonomous Dragon capsule will reach the ISS Monday morning for docking.

Sunday’s Axiom-2 mission is being led by Peggy Whitson, a decorated NASA astronaut who has completed 10 spacewalks and spent 665 days in space, more than any other American. She is now Axiom’s director of human spaceflight and would build on her impressive legacy with her fourth spaceflight mission.

She will be joined by Rayyanah Barnawi, a biomedical researcher who specializes in stem-cell research, who would become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to go to space. Ali Alqarni is also representing Saudi Arabia. A former member of the Saudi Air Force, he is an accomplished pilot who has flown multiple aircraft.

John Shoffner, an American businessman who founded a fiber-optic cable company, will serve as the pilot on the mission. He’s a lifelong space enthusiast who got his pilot’s license when he was 17. Now, he flies in air shows and races sports cars. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my entire life,” he said during a press conference last week.

The crew is scheduled to spend about eight days on the station, performing research and science experiments. Axiom has not said how much the missions cost. But members of the previous mission paid as much as $55 million.

For years, NASA did not allow private citizens to visit the space station, though Russia has. NASA changed its policy in 2019 in a nod to the growing commercial space sector, which the space agency now relies on for a number of crucial missions, including flying its own astronauts to the ISS.

“These missions are very important to us at NASA as we try to open up space, and low-Earth orbit especially, to a greater cross section of society,” Ken Bowersox, associate administrator, NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, said during a news conference before the flight. “There’s a lot to be done there. And we think the economy in low-Earth orbit will continue to expand and someday NASA will just be a participant in that economy, buying services from private industry in low-Earth orbit as NASA goes out and explores on the cutting edge.”

In 2021, SpaceX flew four private citizens to orbit in its Dragon spacecraft. That group, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, spent three days circling the globe in a mission called Inspoiration4 that raised more than $250 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Since then, Isaacman has commissioned three more flights, including one scheduled for later this year that will feature a spacewalk. Isaacman also intends to fly on the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which NASA intends to use to land its astronauts on the moon.

Axiom Space, which is based in Houston, is working to develop its own space station, one of a number of companies working to build commercial habitats for low Earth orbit.

“We really feel like we’re prepared to go,” Whitson said. The Axiom-2 mission is “a precursor for where we’re headed.” The company plans to launch its first space station module in 2025. That module would be attached to the ISS and would help the company get more people to space.

The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable for launch Sunday, but only 20 percent favorable on the backup date, Monday. If the mission can’t go Monday, it would have to wait until after a SpaceX cargo mission in June, NASA has said.

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