NASA will let Axiom Space fly the first private astronauts to the International Space Station in 2022

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NASA will let Axiom Space fly the first private astronauts to the International Space Station in 2022
The International Space Station photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev executed a fly around of the orbiting laboratory to take pictures of the station before returning home after spending 197 days in space. The station will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first element Zarya in November 2018.NASA/Roscosmos

The first space-station mission involving people who aren't professional astronauts is in full swing.

NASA and aerospace startup Axiom Space announced on Monday that they have signed an order to launch four people to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as January 2022. None are working astronauts. Instead, Axiom has chosen its vice president, former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, to command the crew. The mission also includes real-estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor Mark Pathy, and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe.

The plan for the mission, called Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), is to send the men into orbit on one of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceships, which have now carried three astronaut crews to the ISS for NASA. Each of the four men is paying roughly $55 million to do that. NASA is still reviewing the group, and they will need to undergo medical reviews before the agency approves them.

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AX-1 would launch atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Axiom crew would stay on the ISS for eight days. If all goes according to plan, they will become the first private astronauts to set foot on the orbiting laboratory.

Axiom hopes to start flying private astronauts to the ISS twice a year, though it may have to compete for spots with other companies and government missions. Ultimately, Axiom plans to build its own orbital outpost called AxStation. It would start as an attachment to the ISS, then detach.

NASA expects to say goodbye to the ISS and steer it into the Pacific Ocean in 2030. The agency and Congress both hope to have a commercial alternative by then.

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NASA will let Axiom Space fly the first private astronauts to the International Space Station in 2022
An illustration of AxStation, the private space station being designed and built by Axiom Space.Axiom Space

AX-1 would be a step towards creating a commercial economy in low-Earth orbit. That means lots of companies flying people to and from space, conducting tourism and science, and even building their own space stations.

"The dream is really to allow everyone access to space. And this is a pretty exciting starting point here," ISS deputy manager Dana Weigel said in a briefing on Monday. "Who knows what innovations and creative ideas will arise now that we're able to finally share our mission with industry and private citizens who want to visit the station."

'A renaissance in US human spaceflight'

NASA will let Axiom Space fly the first private astronauts to the International Space Station in 2022
The Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station with the Crew-2 astronauts on board, April 24, 2021.NASA

The AX-1 crew begins "serious training" next week, López-Alegría said in the briefing. That involves centrifuge training to simulate a launch, as well as a parabolic plane flight to imitate zero-gravity.

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"From there, the pace will pick up and we'll all be immersed, essentially full-time, in ISS systems and Crew Dragon training starting in the fall," he said.

That includes learning how Crew Dragon docks to the ISS, how to use the toilet on both the spaceship and the station, and how to sleep in space.

The AX-1 crew members will also begin preparing for scientific research that they'll do on the ISS. They're collaborating with several organizations, including the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, on that in-orbit research.

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"This isn't just about tourism. There are many private professionals who are passionate about the betterment of mankind and who would like to do research and STEM activities onboard stations," Weigel said.

NASA is also paying Axiom $1.69 million to bring scientific samples from the ISS back to Earth in cold storage.

"This truly is a renaissance in US human spaceflight. I think that's the perfect word for what we're experiencing," Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development, said in the briefing. "I'm very bullish on the tourism market and the tourism activity. I think the more people that are going to fly, they're going to want to do more things in space. The more things they want to do, that will attract more people. More people, more doing."

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