Sunday, May 22, 2022

Why the AX-1 Private Mission to the International Space Station Is a Game Changer

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Shreya Christina
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It hasn’t been long since billionaires competed to reach the ‘edge of space’.

Now the first batch of citizens are getting ready to take a SpaceX shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). In contrast to the short “joyrides” by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, this mission will reach the approximately 400 km altitude needed to dock at the ISS.

The mission of US commercial space company Axiom Space is a major step forward in private spaceflight and is part of a plan to build a private space station. With Russia recently retired of collaboration on the ISS, the world will look to see if the private sector can be trusted to provide reliable access to space for peaceful exploration.

The Ax-1 mission is scheduled to launch on April 6, using a SpaceX Dragon Endeavor spacecraft – same as that used by astronauts in 2020 – aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission is scheduled for ten days, eight of which will be on the ISS.

Due to the high altitude and the long duration, the preparations were long. The concept mission has been a plan since the creation of Axiom Space in 2016 by the Iranian-American businessman Kamal Ghaffarian (which also founded the private nuclear reactor company X-energy) and Michael T. Suffredinic (who has had a long career with NASA). And while NASA will fund some of the costs, each of the four participants will reportedly have to make their own contribution to: $55 million (£42 million) also.

The astronauts on board will feel weightless for most of the ten days and are at risk of the experience dangers by all astronauts, including radiation exposure, muscle breakdown, and possibly some bone loss. Although with such a short mission, these risks are exceptionally low.

Unlike standard US trips to the ISS, mission control is at Axiom headquarters in Houston rather than on NASA property. While this is the first time it has been used for a full mission, it has previously been used to study how items on the ISS change over time. This has resulted in the MCC-A (Mission Control Center – Axiom) being validated as a payload site: by NASA.

The crew

The astronauts on board are all private individuals, with the mission commander, Michael López-Alegría, a previous NASA astronaut. The other three members, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, are described by the company as “entrepreneurs” and “investors.”

But if you’re thinking of a stereotypically fit investor heading into space, think again. The backgrounds of these three men are very impressive and suggest that each of them could have already been chosen as astronauts for a space agency, with a private pilot and a military pilot among them.

Looking more closely at their backgrounds, it’s clear that philanthropy is at the heart of those chosen for this mission, each known for giving back to their communities. As part of this, the astronauts are planning to research the impact of space travel on the health of future astronauts during their stay at the ISS – including effects on vision, pain and sleep. Food growth experiments are also planned – these are all hot topics to be explored for future private space efforts.

This is a very positive and welcome step forward. It is usually the case that data collected by the space agency is created available for researchers (usually after an embargo period). If private researchers are willing to do the same, this will usher in an era of accelerated research and technology.

First private space station

The Ax-1 mission is the first part of a plan by Axiom Space to produce the first private space station. This is no small feat; ISS itself had to built in pieces, then sent up to be built in space. The total mass of a 420-ton space station is simply not feasible to go into space in one go. For comparison, this is the same as launching 70 James Webb Space Telescopes instantly.

It took more than ten years and 30 launches to complete the ISS. Axiom’s plan is to actually build the space station aboard the ISS, initially a residential module (Axiom Hub One)which is expected to be launched in 2024. Once this module is operational, it will undoubtedly house more modules and align with the financing of the company.

With the ISS scheduled for decommissioning sometime after 2030, there will be a need for an open and international space station. While a space station is a lot of maintenance, at least NASA and Esa probably will pay rent allowance to use facilities on such a private space station.

Many private companies will look to the Ax-1 mission to make a decision about whether or not to continue their own programs. Success would mean that there could suddenly be an influx of investments and plans for future space station modules or entire stations. If this is the case, space agencies will have to accept that they cannot compete with the private sector. Instead, they would be wise to focus on renting private space and doing open access research.

I wish the first four private astronauts success in their mission and hope they bring back a lot of data for both researchers and the general public to learn from.

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article

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