Paving the Way for Low Earth Orbit Commercialization
NASA and Axiom Space have reached a significant milestone in the evolution of space exploration. The two entities have signed an order for the fourth private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS), scheduled to launch no earlier than August 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters in Washington, expressed his satisfaction with the progress, saying,
“I am pleased to see another milestone in our efforts to transition low Earth orbit from primarily a government-sponsored activity to one where NASA is one of many customers.”
“NASA has been directed to develop commercial platforms to sustain a continuous United States presence in low Earth orbit and to transition beyond International Space Station operations.”
“These private astronaut missions are helping to pave the way for that transition.”
Axiom Mission 4 Set to Expand Commercial Space Activities
Axiom Mission 4 (Ax-4) is poised to embark on a groundbreaking 14-day journey docked to the space station. However, the exact launch date will depend on the overall spacecraft traffic to the orbital outpost and other planning constraints.
Coordination between NASA and Axiom Space mission planners will ensure smooth in-orbit activities for the private astronauts as they work alongside station crew members and ground-based flight controllers.
Michael Suffredini, CEO and president of Axiom Space, expressed his excitement about the mission, stating,
“Our Axiom Space team is looking forward to a fourth mission to the International Space Station. Each mission allows us to build on the foundation we have set for the world’s first commercial space station, Axiom Station, preparing our teams and orbital platform to succeed in the International Space Station operations in low Earth orbit.”
“These missions are instrumental in expanding commercial space activities and access to space for individuals and nations around the world, as well as developing the knowledge and experience needed to normalize living and working in microgravity.”
Crew Selection and Preparations Underway
Axiom Space will propose four crew members for the Ax-4 mission to NASA and its international partners for review.
If approved, the prime crew members for the mission will be confirmed. The selected crew members will undergo rigorous training with NASA, international partners, and SpaceX, the launch provider for transportation to and from the space station.
The training will cover systems, procedures, and emergency preparedness for the Dragon spacecraft.
NASA’s and Axiom Space’s Collaboration
Axiom Space is obtaining NASA services through a mission-specific order and a reimbursable Space Act Agreement. The mission-specific order entitles Axiom Space to crew supplies, cargo delivery to space, storage, and in-orbit resources for daily use.
The order also accommodates up to seven contingency days aboard the space station. This mission falls under NASA’s pricing policy for services above space station baseline capabilities.
The order also outlines the capabilities NASA may obtain from Axiom Space, including the return of scientific samples requiring cold storage and other cargo, as well as the capability to utilize the private astronaut mission commander’s time to complete NASA science or perform tasks for the agency.
Through Space Act Agreements, Axiom Space will reimburse NASA for services, such as crew member training and the use of facilities at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Additionally, SpaceX has a reimbursable agreement with NASA Kennedy for launch services.
Low Earth Orbit Commercialization – A Vision for the Future
NASA’s selection of Axiom Space for the third and fourth private astronaut missions aligns with the agency’s vision of low Earth orbit commercialization. The aim is to create a thriving marketplace where NASA is just one of the many customers while the private sector leads the way.
By doing so, the government can access essential services at a lower cost, enabling a greater focus on upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.
Furthermore, maintaining a presence in low Earth orbit will continue to serve as a training and proving ground for these ambitious deep space ventures.