On Friday, SpaceX launched three wealthy businessmen and their astronaut escort to the International Space Station for a stay of more than a week, as NASA joins Russia in hosting guests at the world’s most costly tourist destination.
This is SpaceX’s first private charter mission after two years of transporting humans to the orbiting lab for NASA.
Arriving at the space station Saturday’s guests include an American, a Canadian, and an Israeli who operate in investing, real estate, and other businesses. They’re paying $55 million each for the rocket journey and accommodations, which include all meals.
For decades, Russia has been hosting tourists at the space station and, before that, the Mir station. Just last fall, a Russian movie crew flew up, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant.
After years of opposing space station visitors, NASA is finally getting in on the act.
On reaching orbit, retired NASA astronaut and chaperone Michael Lopez-Alegria commented, “It was a hell of a ride and we’re looking forward to the next 10 days.”
The visitors’ tickets allow them access to all areas of the space station except the Russian section, which requires approval from the three cosmonauts on board. There are three Americans and a German that live up there as well.
Lopez-Alegria intends to avoid discussing politics and the Ukraine conflict while aboard the space station.
“I honestly think that it won’t be awkward. I mean maybe a tiny bit,” he said. He expects the “spirit of collaboration will shine through.”
The visit was arranged by the private Axiom Space firm for three paying customers: Larry Connor of Dayton, Ohio, who manages the Connor Group; Mark Pathy, founder and CEO of Montreal’s Mavrik Corp.; and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot and founding partner of Vital Capital.
Before the flight, their enthusiasm was obvious. Stibbe did a little dance when he arrived at the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.
According to Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months on the space station 15 years ago, SpaceX and NASA have been upfront with them about the risks of spaceflight.
Before the flight, Lopez-Alegria told The Associated Press, “There’s no fuzz, I think, on what the dangers are or what the bad days could look like.”
NASA’s head of space operations, Kathy Lueders, said there’s a lot to learn from this first totally private station visit. “But man, was this launch a great start,” she told reporters.
Each guest has a full schedule of experiments to complete during their stay, which is why they dislike being called “space tourists.”
“They’re not up there to paste their nose on the window,” said Michael Suffredini, co-founder and president of Axiom and a former NASA space station program manager.
The three businessmen are the most recent to take advantage of the opening of space to those with deep pockets. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, is offering 10-minute flights to the edge of space, while Virgin Galactic plans to begin flying clients on its rocket ship later this year.
Friday’s flight is Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s second private charter, following a three-day orbit flight for a millionaire and his companions last year. In just a few weeks, SpaceX will launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the fifth time.
Axiom plans to launch its second private flight to the space station next year. More client journeys will follow, with Axiom beginning to add its own rooms to the orbiting complex in 2024. After around five years, the company intends to detach its compartments to build a self-sustaining station — one of several commercial outposts aimed at replacing the space station once it is retired and NASA shifts to the moon.
During Friday’s launch, NASA’s new moon rocket was completing a dress rehearsal for a summertime test flight on an adjacent pad.
The four tourists are enjoying paella and other Spanish cuisine provided by the famous chef José Andrés as a gift for their seven station hosts. NASA’s freeze-dried meals will have to suffice for the rest of their tenure on the station.
The automated SpaceX spacecraft and its four guests are scheduled to return on April 19, with a splashdown off the coast of Florida.
Connor is sending a fabric swatch from the Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk plane and gold foil from the Apollo 11 command module from the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta to celebrate Ohio’s air and space legacy.
Stibbe will carry on a thunderstorm experiment started by the first Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon, who died aboard the shuttle Columbia in 2003. They were both fighter pilots in the same squadron.
Stibbe is carrying retrieved pages from Ramon’s space diaries, as well as a song written by Ramon’s musician son and a painting of pages falling from the sky created by his daughter.
“To be a part of this unique crew is proof for me that there’s no dream beyond reach,” he said.