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Axiom Space purchases three Crew Dragon missions

Crew Dragon approaching ISS

WASHINGTON — Axiom Space has signed a contract with SpaceX for three additional Crew Dragon missions, enough to meet its projections for private astronaut missions to the International Space Station through at least 2023.

Axiom, which already has a deal with SpaceX for the Ax-1 mission to the ISS launching in early 2022, said June 2 the new contract covers the projected Ax-2, 3 and 4 missions to the station. All will use Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on Falcon 9 rockets.

The companies did not disclose the terms of the agreement, including whether Axiom Space negotiated a lower price through a block buy. Axiom spokesman Beau Holder told SpaceNews that the biggest benefit of the agreement was ensuring access to the Crew Dragon for its future missions.

“It secures a vehicle that is flight-proven and ready to support the crewed launch cadence Axiom is planning: approximately every six or seven months leading up to near the launch of the first Axiom module to ISS,” he said. “Expanding this partnership between two key industry leaders cements the commercialization of low Earth orbit.”

Axiom finalized an agreement with NASA for the Ax-1 mission May 10. That Crew Dragon mission, scheduled for launch in early 2022, will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría with three customers: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.

Axiom announced May 25 that another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, will command the Ax-2 mission. She will fly with John Shoffner, a private astronaut, and two additional customers to be announced. Axiom did not disclose at the time what vehicle the two would use for that mission, but Whitson and Shoffner had already been assigned as backups for the Ax-1 mission.

Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s president and chief executive, said last month that the company had missions lined up through Ax-4, but did not disclose details about who would fly on those missions or when they would launch. “We still have to work with NASA to figure out exactly when those flights can come to the ISS,” he said at a NASA briefing about Axiom’s agreement for the Ax-1 mission.

NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization strategy, announced two years ago, allows two private astronaut missions a year to the ISS. That is based on the amount of traffic from other visiting vehicles to the station, and NASA officials said last month they don’t envision increasing that in the near future.

The new contract would allow Axiom to fly missions to the station through 2023, if it is able to secure agreements for the other private astronaut mission opportunities in 2022 and 2023. “We’re prepared to fly on a cadence of about twice a year, but like everyone, we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said at the briefing.

SpaceX, in a separate statement, sounded optimistic about Axion’s chances of securing those additional ISS private astronaut missions, noting that the agreement covers “three additional private crew missions aboard Dragon to and from the Station through 2023.”

In addition to Axiom, SpaceX is flying the Inspiration4 mission on a Crew Dragon launching this fall. That mission, commanded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, will not dock with the ISS but instead fly in a higher orbit for three days before returning.

Space Adventures announced February 2020 an agreement with SpaceX for a similar Crew Dragon mission, one that would spend several days in orbit but not visit the ISS. At the time Space Adventures said the mission would take place between late 2021 and the middle of 2022, but the company has not updated on the schedule for the mission or announced who will fly on it.

“We are beyond excited to build upon our partnership with Axiom to help make human spaceflight more accessible for more people,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said in a statement. “A new era in human spaceflight is here.”


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Op-ed | Representing the private astronaut is a new step for human spaceflight — and for space lawyers

A new era of human spaceflight was launched with Axiom Space’s Jan. 26 announcement of the four private astronauts it will send to the International Space Station early next year aboard a chartered SpaceX Crew Dragon flight. The next week, SpaceX announced the privately funded Inspiration4 mission that will carry four civilians to Earth orbit perhaps as soon as later this year.

The Axiom Ax-1 mission will be the first purely commercial mission to the ISS while the Inspiration4 mission will be the first all-civilian mission to Earth orbit. In addition to adding a new dimension for space travel, these missions create new challenges and opportunities for space lawyers — representing private astronauts, some of whom will spend the approximately $55 million estimated by industry sources for participating in the Ax-1 mission.

The Inspiration4 flight is the creation of Jared Issacman, a wealthy business owner and pilot who reportedly has paid for the entire mission and is donating the other three seats to selected individuals with the goal of raising $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. One of the seats will go to a St. Jude health care worker. One will be raffled to St. Jude donors. And one will be given to someone who uses Issacman’s Shift4 Payments platform to start an online business.

While the Inspiration4 flight is unique, the Ax-1 flight is the first in a series planned by Axiom. Ax-1 will be commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut now with Axiom. With him will be three multinational private astronauts and Axiom customers: Larry Connor of the United States, Mark Pathy of Canada and my client Eytan Stibbe of Israel. All will spend about eight days on the space station.

Axiom provides all the services needed by private astronauts including training, transportation, mission planning, hardware development, life and medical support, crew provisions, safety and hardware certifications, on-orbit operations, and overall mission management. In order to provide these services, Axiom has agreements with SpaceX for launch and Crew Dragon transportation to and from the ISS, and with NASA for accommodations on the ISS.

Axiom, and any other similar service providers, will enter into contracts with private astronauts for each mission. Axiom anticipates two missions per year, so there should be at least six private astronauts each year needing legal advice to navigate the complex web of national and international laws related to their contractual rights and obligations.

There are risks associated with every launch and reentry. Those risks are managed, to the extent possible, in many ways. Private astronauts face additional risks – contractual risks, that must also be identified, evaluated and managed, to the extent possible. That is the challenge for the lawyers representing private astronauts.


One of the key legal issues, and perhaps the one most familiar to those in the space industry, involves cross-waivers of liability. Many are generally familiar with the waivers applicable to the launch and reentry phases required by the Commercial Space Launch Act and implementing FAA regulations. NASA also has waivers applicable to activities related to the space station. Such waivers are part of the legal regime established by the Outer Space Treaty and other international obligations, including the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the nations involved with the ISS and associated Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between NASA and cooperating space agencies. The IGA and MOUs provide details on use of the ISS, including commercial uses, such as private astronaut missions, and requirements for such uses. Waivers may also apply to terrestrial activities. For example, astronaut training entails certain risks. Those risks will be managed, at least in part, by cross-waivers. Additionally, states in which training, launch and reentry activities may be conducted likely will have their own waivers applicable to all “space flight participants.” In short, the web of potentially applicable cross-waivers is extensive and private astronauts need to understand what risks they are waiving and evaluate whether such risks can be managed by insurance or otherwise.

It’s important for potential private astronauts to understand the limitations that will apply to their mission. For example, private astronauts going to the ISS will be subject to the ISS Crew Code of Conduct, which establishes a chain of command, sets forth standards for activities, and extensively regulates those activities including what personal effects astronauts may carry to the ISS. They will also be subject to the NASA Interim Directive on the use of the ISS for Commercial and Marketing Activities. These regulations may limit the commercial activities in which private astronauts may want to engage.

What the private astronauts may do regarding research and other activities can be important for a variety of reasons. All the Ax-1 private astronauts will conduct scientific and educational activities on the ISS. For example, Eytan Stibbe will collaborate with the Israel Space Agency and the Scientific and Technology Ministry and donate his ISS time to educational and scientific projects on behalf of the Ramon Foundation. Larry Connor and Mark Pathy will also donate time for scientific and educational purposes to specific organizations. Attorneys should evaluate what, if any, tax advantages could be realized from such donations.

Delays are a fact of life in the space industry and the potential impacts of delays must be considered by the private astronauts and their lawyers. Given that the schedule for missions to the ISS could take years from contract formation to the flight, it’s important to understand how delays will be handled contractually. Delays would not just be inconvenient; they could cause the inability of a private astronaut to participate in a mission for a variety of reasons. Provisions for a backup or replacement astronaut ready to take the vacant seat and assume financial responsibility can mitigate the financial risks to the private astronaut who has paid millions but is unable to fly.

In addition to the above key issues, private astronaut agreements will need to address a host of issues including: medical and other qualifications; the price to be charged and payment terms; insurance for possible damage to ISS equipment for which the astronaut and his government might be responsible; the length of the agreement; conditions upon which the astronaut may receive a refund; the impact of force majeure events such as pandemics; rights to media; access to voice and video communications while on the ISS; the responsibilities of Axiom or another service provider; sponsorship; duties while on the ISS including, for example, galley and toilet operations; dispute resolution; events of default; and cure opportunities. As in most legal agreements, the devil is in the details. Lawyers will need to explore those details in great depth with their private astronaut clients.

Additionally, there may also be agreements between the private astronauts and third parties, such as supporting organizations involved in selecting experiments and other activities the private astronauts will conduct on orbit. These agreements must be coordinated with and consistent with the primary private astronaut agreement. Finally, each private astronaut will need to evaluate life insurance and potential exclusions.

In closing, Michael Suffredini and his Axiom team should be congratulated for pioneering this first all-commercial mission to the ISS. That team includes his lawyers who helped identify and address the legal challenges present in the complex contractual arrangements with private astronauts. And Mr. Isaacman is to be applauded for making Earth orbit accessible to the three individuals who will be lucky enough to fly with him.

Milton “Skip” Smith is a space lawyer with Sherman & Howard and is on the board of the International Institute of Space Law. Smith represented Israeli private astronaut Eytan Stibbe in contract negotiations with Axiom.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.


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Space hospitality startup to establish training complex

SAN FRANCISCO – Orbite Corp., a Seattle startup founded by American entrepreneur Jason Andrews and French entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume, announced plans July 14 to establish a Spaceflight Gateway and Astronaut Training Complex offering luxury accommodations, dining and recreation for commercial astronauts, their friends and families.

“It’s been clear during my two-plus decades in this industry that commercial human spaceflight was going to happen,” Andrew, who founded Andrews Space, Spaceflight and Blacksky before merging the companies under Spaceflight in 2015, said in a statement. “There are now four new human-capable vehicles going into operation this year. The 2020s will be the decade of commercial human spaceflight.”

Andrews and Gaume, a technology and media startup veteran who founded Luxembourg-based Space Cargo Unlimited, are not yet ready to discuss the location of the new spaceflight training complex.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Gaume told SpaceNews. “Later on, we will disclose the location as well as the architectural team that is supporting us.”

The existence of Orbite, whose name means orbit in French, has been under wraps since Andrews and Gaume established the startup in Seattle in early 2019. Orbite is revealing its existence now, Gaume said, because the firm has its leadership team in place as well as plans to begin offering training in late 2021 and to open a training complex in 2023.

Sophie Stabile, former CEO of Hotels Services of France and Switzerland within the AccorHotels Group, is Orbite’s chief financial officer.

Orbite’s announcement comes on the heels of SpaceX transporting astronauts to the International Space Station in its Crew Dragon. In addition, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are preparing to offer commercial suborbital flights. Axiom Space, meanwhile, is developing a commercial module for the International Space Station under a $140 million firm fixed price NASA contract announced earlier this year.

“Obviously, all of the companies will have their own preparation and training programs,” Gaume said. “But we want to create a space that is so unique that it allows you to discover every single aspect of all these opportunities.”

Prior to founding and co-founding technology and media companies, Gaume was exposed to the hospitality industry by his father, a chef in a hotel restaurant in southwestern France. He serves on the board of Groupe Gaume, the family real estate and hospitality business.

“I’ve been exposed from a very young age to the dynamics of creating an amazing experience,” Gaume said.

Orbite will offer customers physical, psychological and skill-set training to ensure they get maximum enjoyment from their spaceflight experience, Gaume said. Orbite also will help “connect the dots” for customers who may start with zero gravity flights, then purchase suborbital rides before traveling to low Earth orbit or further, he added.

Gaume compares the complex Orbite plans to construct to a base camp in the Himalaya Mountains.

“You’re in this critical place where you have all these people with stories and knowledge to share,” Gaume said. “You have a place to practice until you are ready to go into the adventure.”

Orbite plans to establish operations in the United States and Europe, “potentially expanding based on
market opportunities and space transportation operations,” according to the news release.