WASHINGTON – NASA has approved plans by Axiom Space to fly a third private astronaut mission to the International Space Station as early as November, although details on who will be on the flight are not yet known.
NASA announced March 14 that it had signed a “mission order” with Axiom for the mission, dubbed Ax-3 by the company. The launch is planned as early as November, a date that will depend in part on the traffic of other vehicles traveling to and from the station.
NASA solicited proposals for a third and fourth private astronaut mission in September 2022, having previously selected Axiom for the Ax-1 mission headed to the ISS in April 2022 and for Ax-2, which is scheduled to launch as early as May was. In its Ax-3 announcement, NASA said it would announce plans for the fourth private astronaut mission, scheduled for 2024, after completing negotiations with an unspecified company.
Axiom was the only company to bid for the second private astronaut mission, according to NASA source selection statements released last August. Both Axiom and a second company, Shuttle IO Technologies, bid on NASA’s original request for a third private astronaut mission in 2021, but the agency turned them down due to low scores from the review process. NASA did not disclose how many companies submitted proposals for the third mission in this new tender.
The Ax-3 announcement revealed few details about the mission other than that it will spend 14 days on the ISS, slightly longer than Ax-2’s planned 10 days. The mission, like Ax-1 and -2, will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Axiom Space did not disclose the crew of Ax-3 in the announcement. Like the previous two missions, it will be commanded by a former NASA astronaut with flight experience, a requirement NASA enacted after Ax-1.
NASA said in the announcement that the formal crew announcement will only be made after it has been approved by NASA and the other ISS partners. While Axiom Space had named Ax-2’s commander and pilot — Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner — in 2021, the other two crew members, Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni, were not named until February 12.
Axiom executives previously said government-sponsored astronauts, like the two Saudis, would make up the majority of customers for upcoming private astronaut missions. “I anticipate that Ax-3 will be largely an agricultural customer flight with our professional astronaut,” Axiom chief executive Michael Suffredini said in a January conversation with reporters. He added that this will be repeated on Ax-4. “I think maybe a private individual will fly between those two flights.”
Axiom hopes to continue flying private astronaut missions to the ISS as it develops a series of commercial modules that it will attach to the station, which will serve as the core of a standalone space station after the station’s decommissioning. “Our desire is to fly two missions a year,” said Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut who commanded Ax-1 for Axiom, in a speech Feb. 26 at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado.
He noted in that speech that NASA had selected Axiom for both the third and fourth private astronaut missions, even though the company was still in contract negotiations with NASA.
Once Axiom has its modules on the ISS, which will also include its own docking port, the company will have more freedom to fly crews to them without having to compete for private astronaut mission opportunities, which NASA has currently limited to two per year. “We still have to go through NASA and we still have to comply with the ISS program rules,” López-Alegría said, “but I have a feeling we’ll have a little bit more leeway to do what we want.”