Private space missions will bring more countries to the ISS

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The next private mission to the International Space Station will carry a private paying customer and three trained astronauts, with two members of Saudi Arabia’s nascent space program coming along for the ride.

Expected to launch sometime in the spring from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, the Axiom Mission 2 will carry four crew members: Former NASA’s astronaut Peggy Whitson will command the mission, civilian John Shoffner of Knoxville, Tennessee, will be the pilot, and Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni from Saudi Arabia will serve as mission specialists for a day-long stay on the ISS.  

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Ax-2 will mark the first time in the still relatively new world of commercial space missions where government and private astronauts fly together. It’s also the first time a woman is commanding a private mission. Axiom Mission 1, which launched to the ISS in April 2022, carried Israeli and Canadian men, but as paying private customers of Axiom Space, not representatives of either nation’s space programs.

“Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station cements our mission of expanding access to space worldwide,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini said in a prepared statement.

That may be more than a corporate platitude about democratizing outer space: Axiom could find there is a ready market of countries hoping to make their mark with astronauts of their own. “To date, fewer than a quarter of the countries of the world have sent even one representative to space,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of the space industry analytical firm Astralytical. “Most cannot afford the expense and infrastructure to train and launch government astronauts on their own soil.”

While Axiom didn’t reveal the price paid by Shoffner to fly on the upcoming mission, each of the three Axiom-1 astronauts paid around $55 million for their time on the ISS. It’s a lot of money for most people, but not that much for a nation, and almost a bargain compared to building a space program from scratch.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, began training astronauts in September 2022 as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategic plan to diversify its economy and move away from dependence on oil production. A February 12 release by the Saudi Press Agency noted the kingdom hopes its astronauts participating in the Axiom-2 mission will “​​empower national capabilities in human spaceflight geared towards serving humanity and benefiting from the promising opportunities offered by the space industry.” Barnawi and Alqarni, a cancer researcher and fighter pilot, respectively, will become the second and third Saudi astronauts to fly in space following the flight of Sultan bin Salman Al Saud aboard the US Space Shuttle in 1985.

The decades-long gap shows that flights on existing government space programs can be hard to come by. Forcyzk notes that even among European Space Agency member states, very few ESA astronauts are selected to fly, with crewed launch vehicle seats via NASA even more precious since ESA ceased working with Roscosmos for launch services in 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. NASA is also “limited by the agreements that the US government has in place in terms of which countries to partner with in space and in what ways,” she says, detailed in bilateral agreements such as the Artemis Accords. “Commercial companies are not so limited.”

[Related: Ukraine was about to revive its space program. Then Russia invaded.]

That could work out well for Axiom Space, as the company is interested in more than just being an orbital outfitter and could use the expertise of trained astronauts on missions. Axiom is developing the first private station module to be added to the ISS with the intention to eventually expand that structure so it can one day be cut loose as a free flying space station. The company is one of the participants in NASA’s Commercial Destinations in Low-Earth Orbit program, in which the agency is encouraging private companies to develop private space stations that NASA can rent for certain periods of time after the planned retirement of the ISS in 2030.

In a future with multiple private space stations where NASA is just one of many tenants, there could be more opportunities for private and government trained astronauts from nations that haven’t yet had much chance to board a rocket in nearly 70 years of spaceflight. “Commercial human spaceflight has the potential to open up the doors to space globally in a way that government space agencies cannot do,” Forczyk says.

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