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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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Inspiration4 announces crew for private SpaceX Crew Dragon mission

Inspiration4 crew

WASHINGTON — The private venture that purchased a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight to low Earth orbit has finalized the crew for that mission, scheduled to launch as soon as September.

The Inspiration4 mission, which describes itself as the “world’s first all-civilian mission to space,” revealed the crew that will accompany its sponsor, entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, during a March 30 event at the Kennedy Space Center. Isaacman announced the mission Feb. 1, starting a pair of contests to select two people who would fly with him.

One of those people is Sian Proctor, a scientist and educator who has participated in a number of terrestrial “analog astronaut” missions. She won the seat called “Prosperity” by establishing an online store through Isaacman’s company, Shift4 Payments, and submitting a video judged by an independent panel.

The second is Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin employee in the Seattle area. He won the “Generosity” seat by participating in a sweepstakes that raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The fourth member of the crew, previously announced, is Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude who, as a child, was treated for bone cancer there. At 29, Arceneaux would be the youngest American in space.

“We promised a crew representing some of the best of humanitarian qualities, exemplifying our mission ideals of leadership, hope, prosperity and generosity,” Isaacman said. “I’m pleased to report that we’ve accomplished that goal.”

The four will start training as a group immediately, he said. That training includes time in Crew Dragon simulators, going through all aspects of the mission, as well as centrifuges to simulate the accelerations of launch and reentry and “other forms of stress testing.”

In addition to announcing the crew, Isaacman and SpaceX outlined the details of the mission itself. Launch is scheduled for no earlier than Sept. 15, slightly earlier than the original announcement of the fourth quarter of this year. The spacecraft will remain in orbit for three days, flying in an orbit at the same inclination as the International Space Station — 51.6 degrees — but in an orbit as high as 540 kilometers, more than 100 kilometers above the station.

That particular orbit, Isaacman said, will be the highest people have been above the Earth’s surface since the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. “It should send a message,” he said, one of going beyond the ISS. “We’re ready to go back to the moon, and we’re ready to go beyond the moon to Mars. Extending out a little bit farther than where we’ve been for some time right now is a good step in the right direction.”

The three-day mission duration, he added, “is a good balance between the capabilities of the Dragon spacecraft and how much time you want to spend in a relatively small space for a couple days together.”

Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said the company moved up the mission slightly to September to accommodate the Crew-3 launch for NASA later in the fall. “This crew, with training, we believe will be ready by September, as well as the Dragon,” he said. “It works out very well with our manifest.”

The Inspiration4 mission will use the same Dragon spacecraft, called Resilience, currently docked at the ISS for the Crew-1 mission. That spacecraft is currently scheduled to return to Earth April 28, assuming the Crew-2 mission launches to the station on schedule April 22. “We feel very good about the timeframe we’re working in” to refurbish the spacecraft for Inspiration4.

Crew Dragon cupola
An illustration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft outfitted with a cupola in place of the docking adapter used for space station missions. Credit: SpaceX

Besides refurbishing the spacecraft, SpaceX will install an additional window on the spacecraft, a viewing port modeled on the space station’s cupola that will replace the docking adapter under the spacecraft’s nose cone. Since the Inspiration4 mission will not dock with the station, that adapter is not needed.

“It’s awesome,” Reed said of the cupola. Qualification and testing of the cupola is in progress, and Reed said SpaceX will ensure that its installation doesn’t preclude using the spacecraft for later missions, such as those to the station that will require the reinstallation of the docking adapter.

Inspiration4 will be the first Crew Dragon mission for a customer other than NASA, but it is not the only one on its manifest. Axiom Space will fly four people to the ISS on its Ax-1 mission in early 2022. Space Adventures previously announced a Crew Dragon mission that would fly well above the station, but that space tourism company has not provided any updates on its schedule for that mission.

“We’re trying to deliver an awful lot of messages with this mission,” Isaacman said. “When this mission is complete, people are going to look at it and say this was the first time that everyday people could go to space.”

However, Inspiration4 may have overestimated the interest in the mission. Proctor was one of only about 200 people who participated in the Prosperity competition, which required no expense beyond the time setting up an online store and producing a video. Sembroski was selected from nearly 72,000 entries, which could be purchased at the rate of 10 entries per dollar, up to 10,000 entries per person.

That limited interest has hurt Inspiration4’s efforts to raise money for St. Jude. The mission has raised a little less than $13 million for the hospital as of March 30, most of which was raised when the sweepstakes was open in February. That’s well short of the goal of $100 million set when Inspiration4 was announced Feb. 1.

“We’ve helped drive a significant amount of donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Isaacman said. “This fundraising effort is really far from over. We’ll be continuing throughout the year.” He didn’t elaborate on those future fundraising plans.


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Contest for Crew Dragon seat well short of fundraising goal


WASHINGTON — A competition to raffle off a seat on an upcoming Crew Dragon mission has raised only a small fraction of its goal so far, but the contest organizers say that they will continue the fundraising effort even after the contest ends.

SpaceX and billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman announced the “Inspiration4” mission Feb. 1, which will fly Isaacman and three other people on a Crew Dragon spacecraft late this year. They will spend several days in orbit before returning to Earth.

One of the three available seats will go the winner of a sweepstakes taking place this month, intended to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. People can purchase entries through the Inspiration4 website through Feb. 28, with a winner selected on or around March 1.

However, as of early Feb. 16, the contest had raised just under $9 million, according to its website. That leaves the competition well short of the goal of $100 million, plus another $100 million that Isaacman plans to donate to St. Jude.

Brian Bianco, a spokesman for Inspiration4, said the $100 million fundraising goal goes beyond this month’s competition. “The $100 million goal was set for the duration of the mission between now and launch and we will be sharing different opportunities and incentives throughout the coming months beyond the current sweepstakes opportunities,” he told SpaceNews Feb. 15.

“This is a 2021 initiative. Crew selection process is just the first part. We are just getting started with helping raise funds for @StJude … lots more to come including the corporate contributions,” Isaacman tweeted.

That’s different from what Isaacman said when he announced the competition. “The other [seat] will be awarded through a national fundraising campaign that begins today and runs through the month of February,” he said in a Feb. 1 call with reporters, after stating that one seat would be donated to the hospital to allow one of its employees to fly on the mission. “Our goal is to raise over $200 million, and I’m contributing the first $100 million to this great effort.”

He also said at that briefing that while the contest is not intended to pay for the flight itself, which he has already funded, he hoped the money raised “will certainly far exceed the cost of the mission itself.” He did not disclose how much he paid for the flight.

Some in the industry see the competition as a way to gauge public interest in commercial human spaceflight independent of the cost. It is difficult, though, to determine the number of people participating based on amount raised alone. The contest sells entries at a rate of 10 per dollar, with a minimum purchase of $10. The maximum number of entries per person is 10,000, although the competition offers additional perks for those who donate more than $1,000. It is also possible to enter the contest without donating.

The contest has not lacked publicity. In addition to the media attention from the Feb. 1 announcement, Inspiration4 ran a 30-second ad for the contest Feb. 7 during the Super Bowl, one of the most-watched events in the United States. The ad cost the project more than $5 million for the airtime alone, based on published ad rates for the game, in addition to the cost to produce the ad itself.

One complaint many people have expressed online about the competition is that it is limited to “U.S. persons” as defined under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which includes citizens and permanent residents. Isaacman said that while he wanted to open the contest to a wider audience, the schedule of the mission made that impossible.

“The issue was timing of regulatory approval,” he tweeted. “Crew selection will be complete by first week of March… training begins mid-March. It would have been impossible to get approvals in time. International astronauts with NASA have years of notice.”

Axiom Space’s first crewed mission, Ax-1, will include Canadian and Israeli citizens on its Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station scheduled for early 2022. The company announced the crew Jan. 26, although the Israeli participant, Eytan Stibbe, was revealed in November 2020. It’s unclear how long the approval process took for the non-U. S. crew on the flight.


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Entrepreneur purchases SpaceX Crew Dragon mission


WASHINGTON — An entrepreneur has purchased a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission slated for launch late this year that will include three other people as part of a project that is a mix of charity and commerce.

SpaceX announced Feb. 1 that Jared Isaacman, the founder and chief executive of online payment processing company Shift4 Payments, purchased the mission, scheduled for launch no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2021. Isaacman will be one of the four people to fly on the spacecraft, which will spend two to four days in low Earth orbit but not dock with the International Space Station.

Isaacman is calling the mission “Inspiration4” and is working with both his own company and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to identify the other three people who will accompany him on the first “all-civilian” orbital spaceflight.

“The three crew members we are selecting come from everyday walks of life, including a front-line health care worker who’s committed to helping kids fight cancer, someone who visits our mission’s website and makes a donation, and an inspiring entrepreneur building a business,” he said in a call with reporters about the mission. “Thirty days from now they’re going to get fitted for a spacesuit.”

One of the three people will be a health care worker at St. Jude who has apparently already been selected. “I know she’s looking forward to the launch as much as me,” he said of that individual, whom he did not name.

The second person will be selected from what is effectively a raffle. People buy entries on the Inspiration4 website, with the money going to St. Jude. Isaacman said he expected that contest to raise at least $100 million, plus $100 million he is donating directly to the hospital.

The third person will be selected from a contest affiliated with Shift4 Payments. Participants can start an online store using the company’s platform and submit a video to be reviewed by a “panel of celebrity judges,” with the winner joining the crew of the mission.

The winners will join Isaacman for what he calls a “pretty extensive training plan” to both prepare for the flight and to get to know each other long before they spend several days in a small capsule. “I am going to ensure that I introduce some very uncomfortable and stressful situations here on Earth long before we go up in space,” he said. “I intend to get four people into a tent that I can attest is absolutely smaller than the Dragon spacecraft on a mountain when it’s snowing out and introduce everybody to some really stressful situations.”

Neither he nor SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said much about the medical requirements for the participants. “I’ve already gone through the SpaceX medical screening process, and I can tell you that the attitude is about how do you get someone into space, and not how you ground them,” Isaacman said.

“If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, you should be fine for going on Dragon,” Musk said. The official rules of the competition do require people to be at least 18 years old, no taller than 1.98 meters, no heavier than 113.4 kilograms and “physically and psychologically fit for training and Spaceflight.”

The rules also limit participation to “U.S. persons” as defined under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which includes citizens and permanent residents. Musk, though, seemed to think others could fly. “It’s not out of the question that someone who is not a U.S. citizen could fly,” he said when asked about that limitation.

Isaacman did not disclose how much he was paying for the flight or other expenses associated with the project, such as an ad that will air during the Super Bowl Feb. 7. “What we aim to raise in terms of those funds and the amount of good it will do,” he said of the $200 million goal, “will certainly far exceed the cost of the mission itself.”

Musk said commercial missions like this one will contribute to SpaceX’s development of its Starship vehicle. SpaceX has agreements for other Crew Dragon commercial missions with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, with the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission launching no earlier than January 2022.

“We have to fund the Starship program somehow, and this mission will help fund the Starship program,” he said.

The Inspiration4 mission will use the Crew Dragon spacecraft called “Resilience” that is currently docked to the International Space Station for NASA’s Crew-1 mission. “We will, of course, coordinate this with NASA,” Musk said. “NASA has been very generous and is supportive.”

NASA offered its support in a tweet. “Excited to see one of the original goals of @Commercial_Crew come to be with the expansion of new commercial activities beyond our own in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations and the former manager of the commercial crew program, referring to the Inspiration4 announcement.

The 37-year-old Isaacman, a pilot, said the flight is the realization of a dream that dates back to his childhood. “I remember actually — very true story — telling my kindergarten teacher that some day I’m going to space,” he recalled.

Musk, too, is interested in going to space someday. “I’ll be on a flight one day, but not this one.”