Axiom Space says the customers for its future private astronaut missions to the International Space Station are dominated by governments, not individuals.
Speaking to reporters on January 30, Axiom Space executives said they are “pretty active in training” the crew for Ax-2, the company’s second mission to the station, which is tentatively scheduled to launch in May. This includes training at facilities associated with the station in Japan and Europe, as well as at the Johnson Space Center and SpaceX’s headquarters in California for the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will use the mission.
The mission will be piloted by Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, with Axiom customer John Shoffner as the pilot. While NASA announced Jan. 20 that ISS partners have approved a full crew of four for Ax-2, neither the agency nor Axiom have yet to reveal the names of the other two people flying on the mission.
It’s a customer decision, said Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s chief executive. “We are working very hard to meet their needs and they decided to wait a little bit to announce their crew,” he said. “I think there will be an announcement of specific individuals within the next week or two.”
The two are believed to be astronauts from Saudi Arabia as part of an agreement the Saudi Space Commission signed with Axiom Space in September 2022. A NASA representative, speaking at a meeting of the advisory committee in November, said that Saudi astronaut candidates have begun training for the mission.
Axiom Space has not announced customers for missions beyond Ax-2, but Saffredini said future missions will mostly be commissioned by governments rather than individuals. “I expect Ax-3 to be primarily a flight for the country’s customers with our professional astronaut,” he said, something that will be repeated on Ax-4. “I think there might be one private person flying between those two flights.”
He did not reveal which countries might fly astronauts from those missions, although he said a later Ax-4 could include a country that previously flew to the station. Axiom Space announced in September an agreement with the Turkish Space Agency to fly a Turkish astronaut on an upcoming Axiom mission, but did not disclose the schedule. At the European Space Agency’s ministerial conference in November, Hungary’s foreign minister said the country is working on selecting an astronaut to fly to the ISS as part of the Axiom mission in late 2024 or early 2025.
Axiom still needs formal NASA approval for missions beyond Ax-2. In September, NASA invited proposals for two private astronaut missions between late 2023 and late 2024. Suffredini said he expects NASA to announce its plans for those missions soon.
These future missions will have to comply with NASA’s requirements announced last August that would require private astronaut missions to be led by a former NASA astronaut with flight experience. Axiom has already announced Whitson as the Ax-2 commander, and its first private astronaut mission to the Ax-1 station in April 2022 will be led by another former astronaut, Michael Lopez-Alegria.
While Axiom officials had speculated before Ax-1 that subsequent missions might be customer-only flights, Suffredini said the company agreed with NASA to have a professional astronaut on board. “We agree that on short-duration flights, especially with astronauts who have not been trained as professional astronauts, this is the right way to fly,” he said.
He declined to say whether Axiom would hire additional former NASA astronauts besides Lopez-Alegria and Whitson for missions beyond Ax-2. “We will have suitable professional astronauts for the flights that require it.”
During a Jan. 31 panel discussion at the 18th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, in which all four Ax-1 astronauts participated, López-Alegría said the opportunity to fly came after he joined to Axiom to support its efforts to develop a private space station. “When we started looking for customers, they expressed interest that they needed someone who had been there before, and NASA said the same thing,” he recalled of planning the first private astronaut mission. “When we looked around the room, I was the only one who fit that description.”
One of his Ax-1 crewmates, Mark Pati, suggested on the panel that Lopez-Alegría will fly again in an upcoming private astronaut mission. “We all aspire to return to space. We’ll all envy Mike that he’s coming back.”