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First private mission launches for International Space Station

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The first fully private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) blasted off from Florida on Friday with a four-member crew from startup company Axiom Space.

NASA has hailed the three-way partnership with Axiom and SpaceX as a key step towards commercialising the region of space known as “Low Earth Orbit”, leaving the agency to focus on more ambitious voyages deeper into the cosmos.

“We’re taking commercial business off the face of the Earth and putting it up in space,” NASA Chief Bill Nelson said ahead of lift-off.

Commanding the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) is former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a dual citizen of the United States (US) and Spain, who flew to space four times over his 20-year-career, and last visited the ISS in 2007. He is joined by three paying crewmates: American real estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, and former fighter pilot, investor and philanthropist Eytan Stibbe.

The widely reported price for tickets – which includes eight days on the outpost – is USD55 million.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) to the International Space Station at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. PHOTO: NASA VIA AP

While private citizens have visited the ISS before, Ax-1 is the first mission featuring an all-private crew flying a private spacecraft to the outpost – with the launch facilities rented out by NASA.

But unlike the recent, attention-grabbing suborbital flights carried out by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, Axiom said its mission shouldn’t be considered tourism.

On board the ISS, which orbits 250 miles above sea level, the quartet will carry out research projects, including an MIT technology demonstration of smart tiles that form a robotic swarm and self-assemble into space architecture.

Another experiment involves using cancer stem cells to grow mini tumours, then leveraging the accelerated ageing environment of microgravity to identify early changes in those tumours, to improve early detection of cancers on Earth.

“The distinction is that our guys aren’t going up there and floating around for eight days taking pictures and looking out of the cupola,” Operations Director of Axiom Space, told reporters at a pre-launch briefing.

“I mean, we have a very intensive and research-oriented timeline plan for them.”

In addition, crewmember Stibbe plans to pay tribute to his late friend, astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the spaceship disintegrated upon re-entry.

Surviving pages from Ramon’s space diary, as well as mementos from his children, will be brought to the station by Stibbe.

The Axiom crew will live and work alongside the station’s regular crew: currently three Americans and a German on the US side, and three Russians on the Russian side.

The company has partnered for a total of four missions with SpaceX, and NASA has already approved in principle the second, Ax-2.