In June 2019, NASA released a policy that would allow its commercial space partners to regularly fly private astronauts to the International Space Station as part of a broad program to encourage commercial activities on the ISS.
NASA’s first space tourism mission won’t take off until next year, but demand is already booming beyond what the agency is able to handle.
“We are seeing a lot of interest in private astronaut missions…At this point, the demand exceeds what we actually believe the opportunities on station will be,” Angela Hart, manager of commercial low Earth orbit development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said at a press event on Monday announcing details of the agency’s first such mission, to be flown by Houston-based startup Axiom Space.
NASA said the Axiom mission, dubbed Ax-1, will launch no earlier than January 2022 with four passengers—former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría and three paying customers, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe—on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Under the agency’s low Earth orbit commercialization policy, NASA allows two civilian missions per year to the ISS for no longer than 30 days each. Private astronauts will be charged about $35,000 per day by NASA plus the fees charged by the companies arranging the flights.
It’s a lucrative business. But busy traffic around the ISS makes it hard for NASA to expand the program. Commercial crew missions are limited to two docking ports on the space station. One of them is often occupied by vehicles that transport long-duration crew, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The other port is shared among cargo missions, civilian missions and important tests, such as Boeing’s Starliner test, which has been delayed due to the “traffic jam” around these docking ports.
“We’re prepared to fly on a cadence of about twice a year, but like everyone, we have to compete for the opportunity,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said during Monday’s press briefing.
The Ax-1 mission will last ten days, including seven to eight days docked at the space station. Axiom has three more flights planned and aims to reduce reliance on NASA services after the third flight.
“We have a goal that, by after our third flight, we will provide all of those kinds of capabilities” that it currently purchases from NASA, Suffredini said. Suffredini was NASA’s ISS manager from 2005 to 2015.
Axiom has ambitious goals to eventually build a stand-alone space station to replace the aging ISS. The first major module is expected to launch in 2024.