- Space tourists have been flying in orbit since a millionaire made the first such flight in 2001.
- Now, the startup Axiom Space has chartered the first fully private orbital mission, called Ax-1, which could be launched as early as October 2021.
- Former NASA astronaut captain Michael López-Alegría will be joined by three private passengers, likely including Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman.
- “It’s important to me that our crew is respected,” López-Alegría told Insider. “I don’t want to give anyone an excuse not to like us. “
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
This year, a private company can charter a private spacecraft, fill it with private passengers and put it into orbit in the hands of a private astronaut.
The expedition is set to be the first of its kind, and the gravity of that responsibility is not lost on its commander, Michael López-Alegría, a retired NASA astronaut who has become vice president of business development. for Axiom Space, which finances the historical flight.
“I really want this crew – who sets the bar for commercial human spaceflight forever, if you really think about it – to be as good as they can get,” López-Alegría recently told Insider in a large-scale interview.
Called Ax-1, the mission could be launched as early as October in a Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket, both built by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk.
Read more: SpaceX Seeks To Raise Another Big Round Of Funding, Wants To Double Its Valuation To $ 92 Billion
López-Alegría will serve as mission commander, joining him as Israeli businessman and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe. While not officially announced, all evidence to date suggests that the other two passengers will be actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman. The crew will travel to the International Space Station, stay for about a week (where Cruise and Liman plan to shoot a movie), and return to Earth.
“I’ve only ever met one of them in person, just because of the COVID circumstances,” López-Alegría said. “But I feel like I know them pretty well and ironically, even though they are private astronauts, these three individuals feel like people who could have been selected as astronauts before – which means that I did. feel like they all have the right stuff. ”
But López-Alegría has made it clear that he doesn’t plan to take it slow.
‘I have to play both a good cop and a bad cop to them’
In 2001, millionaire entrepreneur and engineer Dennis Tito became the first orbital space tourist to pay his own way, flying on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz to the ISS. The hindsight and objections of the leaders and astronauts of NASA were numerous and vigorous.
“The argument used by NASA was that I was not qualified,” Tito told Forbes in 2017. But he noted that Russia had trained cosmonauts for four decades. “It was an insult to suggest that they would slip into someone who was not trained,” he said. “For me, writing the check was a small part of it. For eight months, I trained at the Cosmonaut Center outside Moscow on a Soviet-style military base. I lived in a two room apartment, I made my own bed and meals. ”
Tito opened the door for many others like him, ultimately helping to change his mind within NASA – including that of López-Alegría.
“I was not thrilled to be flying with a private astronaut in 2006, and I went home with another private astronaut. I wasn’t too excited about it, ”he said. “But my experience with the first one – Anousheh Ansari – really changed my outlook. In fact, that’s really why I entered the commercial space, because of this experience. ”
After a while at Axiom, which wants to charter a few private missions to the ISS per year, López-Alegría raised his hand to order the first. With four space flights under his belt and previous experience with private passengers, he emerged as the natural choice when the question arose among Axiom executives.
“My job as a commander is to try to identify everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, including my own, and build the strongest team possible by making intelligent use of that knowledge. I am very convinced that this crew will not only succeed, but will exceed NASA’s expectations ”. he said of Ax-1.
“It’s an interesting needle that I have to thread. On the one hand, I firmly believe that human space flight is possible for a large majority of the population. You don’t have to be Superman, you don’t have to be Einstein, you don’t have to be Da Vinci. You just have to be open-minded and willing to learn, ”said López-Alegría.
On the flip side, López-Alegría added, they have to be professional, prepared and punctual – and he’s willing to switch between Drill Sergeant and Den Mother to encourage them in any way it takes.
“I have to play both a good cop and a bad cop to them,” he said. “I think the most important message is that we are family as a crew. We really have to work as a team, we have to learn to communicate and we have to stand up for each other. I think we are already on the road to success. ”
The serious start of a commercial era in human spaceflight
López-Alegría says he’s going to be extra vigilant with his crew not just because of the stakes for his business, but the entire commercial spaceflight business.
In fact, despite NASA’s historic objections to air tourists, the agency has recently warmed up to the idea. In 2019, he announced that private citizens could stay on the US mods at a cost of around $ 35,000 per night. A year later, NASA began funding efforts to help build private replacements for the ISS, which will be desorbed around 2030.
Axiom, for its part, wants to build a multi-module orbiting facility called AxStation before the destruction of the ISS.
“The people at NASA began to realize that the ISS was a finite resource and that in order to have a successor we had to start sowing the seeds for an economy in low earth orbit. So they started to open their arms more and more for business ideas, ”he said.
Still, López-Alegría is aware that no matter how hard he and his crew work, it could be a slog to change their minds within NASA, its Astronaut Corps and other space agencies around the world. .
“It is important to me that our crew is respected. But I realize it’s a tough climb at first; we are leaving with a deficit. That’s part of the reason why I don’t want to give anyone excuses for not liking us, ”he says. “If they don’t like us, it’s not because we’re not performing or we’re not ready, or we’re not capable or not good operators in the vehicle – it’s for a another reason which I think can be overcome. with socialization and explanation, and just being good ambassadors. ”