First private sector group of astronauts launched to International Space Station

Mission believed to cost businessmen about $55m each

The first private sector team of fee-paying astronauts has blasted off to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The move represents a major milestone in the commercial development of space and also marks the initial flight and orbital science mission for the Houston-based start-up Axiom Space Inc.

The crew, led by retired Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, also includes three businessmen – an American, a Canadian and an Israeli.

Axiom previously indicated a price of $55 million per seat for


a 10-day trip to the International Space Station.

The company has declined to comment on the financial terms for this specific mission. However, it said last year the cost would be in the “tens of millions”.

The private sector astronauts are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Saturday, after a 20-hour-plus flight, as their SpaceX-supplied “Crew Dragon” capsule docks with the orbiting space station about 250 miles (400km) above the Earth.

SpaceX, the privately-funded company of billionaire Elon Musk, is also providing the Falcon 9 rocket to propel the Crew Dragon to space and is directing mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.

Orbiting laboratory

While the space station has hosted civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use the space station for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory.

The private sector will be sharing the weightless work environment with seven regular crew members aboard the ISS – three American astronauts, a German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.

Mr Lopez-Alegria (63) is the Spanish-born mission commander and Axiom vice president of business development. His second-in-command is Larry Connor, an entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio who is designated as the mission pilot. Mr Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.

Mission specialists

The other crew members are Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.

Mr Stibbe is the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who died along with six Nasa crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

There has been some debate over the future of the International Space Station – elements of which are run by the Russian and American space authorities – in the wake of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

However, on Friday Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said: “The professional relationship in the civilian space programme between the cosmonauts and the astronauts, it is just steady.”

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent