Nov 24, 2020 - Science

Inside a mission to send private astronauts to the space station

Photo Illustration of Michael López-Alegría.

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Gregg Newton/Getty Images

If all goes according to plan, in about a year, former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría will board a SpaceX capsule and command a flight to orbit with three other private astronauts.

The big picture: The mission — flown by the company Axiom Space — will mark a major test of NASA's plans to open up commercial access to the space station in the name of creating a thriving private market in low-Earth orbit.

Axiom's first mission, which is expected to re-use the Crew Dragon capsule currently docked with the International Space Station, will deliver López-Alegría and his three other crewmates to the station for an eight-day stay aboard the orbiting outpost.

  • Former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe has been confirmed as one of the private astronauts that will be on López-Alegría's flight.
  • While the identities of the other two crewmembers have yet to be confirmed, the people on the company's first flights share commitments to improving the world either through philanthropy or other means, according to Axiom spokesperson Beau Holder.
  • An announcement about the two other crewmembers is expected in the next several weeks.

How it works: The private astronauts flying to orbit with López-Alegría should ramp up their training about four to five months before liftoff, when they will work with SpaceX and NASA in order to familiarize themselves with the systems and controls on both the Crew Dragon and ISS.

  • As commander, López-Alegría will be responsible for making sure his fellow crewmates are safe during the flight, and he's already acting as an experienced guide to the three private astronauts he'll help take to space.
  • "I think we are already starting to bond pretty well as a crew, which is really important, as you can imagine. And that's a process that'll just continue and get better over the year," López-Alegría told me.

Between the lines: The mission will also mark a new start in space for López-Alegría, who spent more than 257 total days in orbit during his 20 years as a NASA astronaut.

  • After retiring from NASA, López-Alegría became interested in the commercial spaceflight industry, eventually finding himself working for Axiom, but he didn't necessarily plan to fly to space as a private astronaut.
  • "It became pretty clear that people were a lot more comfortable with the idea if they would be accompanied by someone who had done it before," said López-Alegría.
Go deeper