On Friday, SpaceX launched three wealthy businessmen and an astronaut escort to the International Space Station for a stay of more than a week, joining Russia in hosting visitors to the world’s most expensive tourist destination.
After two years of transporting astronauts to the orbiting lab for NASA, this is SpaceX’s first private charter flight there.
An American, a Canadian, and an Israeli will arrive at the space station on Saturday to run investment, real estate, and other businesses. They’ll each pay $55 million for the rocket ride and accommodations, which includes all meals.
For decades, Russia has welcomed visitors to the space station — and before that, the Mir station. A Russian film crew arrived last fall, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant. After years of opposing space station visitors, NASA is finally getting in on the act.
Their tickets grant them access to the entire space station, with the exception of the Russian section, which requires permission from the three cosmonauts on board. There are also three Americans and a German living up there.
The chaperone, former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, intends to stay away from politics and the Ukraine conflict while on the space station.
“I honestly don’t think it’ll be awkward.” “I mean, maybe a smidgeon,” he explained. He expects the “collaborative spirit” to shine through.
The private Axiom Space company arranged the visit with NASA for its three paying customers: Larry Connor of Dayton, Ohio, who runs 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.
Their excitement was palpable before the launch: Stibbe did a little dance as he approached the rocket at Kennedy Space Center.
Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months on the space station 15 years ago, said SpaceX and NASA have been honest with them about the risks of spaceflight.
Before the flight, Lopez-Alegria told The Associated Press, “I think there’s no fuzz on what the dangers are or what the bad days could look like.”
One of the reasons they don’t like the term “space tourists” is that each visitor has a full schedule of experiments to complete during their nine to ten days on the station.
“They’re not up there to stick their nose in 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 space that has become available to those with deep pockets. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, is offering 10-minute rides to the edge of space, while Virgin Galactic plans to begin flying passengers on its rocket ship later this year.
Friday’s flight is Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s second private charter, following a three-day orbit ride for a billionaire and his guests last year.
Axiom plans to fly to the space station for the second time next year. Beginning in 2024, Axiom will add its own rooms to the orbiting complex, allowing for more customer trips. After about five years, the company plans to detach its compartments to form a self-sustaining station, one of several commercial outposts vying to replace the space station once NASA moves to the moon.
NASA’s new moon rocket, which is awaiting completion of a dress rehearsal for a summertime test flight, was on an adjacent pad during Friday’s launch.
The four visitors are eating paella and other Spanish cuisine prepared by celebrity chef José Andrés as a gift for their seven station hosts. NASA’s freeze-dried chow will have to suffice for the rest of their stay on the station.
On April 19, the four will be reunited with the automated SpaceX capsule.
Connor is displaying a fabric swatch from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk flyer and gold foil from the Apollo 11 command module from the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta to honor 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 shuttle Columbia in 2003. They were both fighter pilots in the same squadron.