The first fully private team of astronauts ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS) arrived safely at the orbiting research platform on Saturday to begin a week-long science mission hailed as a milestone in flights commercial spaces.
The rendezvous came about 9 p.m. after the four-man team representing Houston-based startup Axiom Space, Inc. blasted off Friday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX.
The Crew Dragon capsule launched into orbit by the rocket docked with the ISS around 8:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 GMT) Saturday as the two spacecraft flew about 250 miles (420 km) above the central Atlantic Ocean, a webcast NASA’s live coupling showed.
The final approach was delayed by a technical glitch that disrupted a video feed used to monitor the capsule’s rendezvous with the ISS. The snafu forced the Crew Dragon to pause and hold its position 20 meters from the station for approximately 45 minutes while Mission Control repaired the problem.
Once docking was complete, it took about two more hours for the sealed passageway between the space station and the crew capsule to be pressurized and checked for leaks before the hatches could be opened, allowing newly arrived astronauts to board the ISS.
The multinational Axiom team, which plans to spend eight days in orbit, was led by Spanish-born retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company’s vice president of business development.
His second-in-command was Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatic aviator from Ohio assigned as a mission pilot. Connor is over 70, but the company did not provide his specific age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 crew were Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian business owner and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both mission specialists.
Stibbe became the second Israeli to fly in space, following Ilan Ramon, who perished along with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
They will join the ISS’s current occupants, seven regular government-paid space station crew members – three American astronauts, a German astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts.
The newcomers brought with them two dozen scientific and biomedical experiments to conduct aboard the ISS, including research into brain health, heart stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a demonstration technology to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity.
The mission, a collaboration between Axiom, Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX and NASA, was touted by the three as a major step in expanding space business activities collectively referred to by insiders as the in-orbit economy. low land, or “LEO economy” for short.
NASA officials say the trend will help the US space agency focus more of its resources on scientific exploration, including its Artemis program to return humans to the Moon and eventually Mars.
While the space station has welcomed civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission marks the first all-commercial team of astronauts sent to the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.
The Axiom mission is also SpaceX’s sixth manned spaceflight in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the space station and the “Inspiration 4” launch in September that sent an all-civilian crew into orbit to the first time. This flight did not dock with the ISS.
Axiom executives say their plans for astronauts and plans to build a private space station in Earth orbit go well beyond the astrotourism services offered to wealthy thrill seekers by companies such as Blue Origin. and Virgin Galactic, owned by billionaire entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard, respectively. Branson.