SpaceX signs bulk deal for three private Crew Dragon missions

According to a bulk deal inked this week with mission organizer Axiom Space, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will launch three more commercial astronaut trips tentatively until 2023. Though the terms of the agreement were not published, it is one of the largest in the developing commercial spaceflight business, and it will keep the ISS busy for the next few years.

After Axiom’s first voyage on Crew Dragon in January next year, carrying a “all-civilian” crew to the International Space Station for eight days, the three flights will be spaced about six months apart. Peggy Whitson, a veteran NASA astronaut, will lead the second mission, Ax-2. The crews for Ax-3 and 4 are yet to be announced. All trips will spend the same amount of time on the ISS.

Axiom declined to say how much the deal was worth, despite the fact that it had been in the works for months and was only just inked with SpaceX. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment sent by email. NASA, which supervises the ISS schedule, as well as a panel of NASA’s foreign space station partners, must approve the time and specifications of missions.

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In a statement, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell said, “A new era in human spaceflight has arrived.” “The increasing relationship between Axiom and SpaceX will offer more chances for more humans in space on the road to making humankind multi-planetary,” SpaceX wrote on its website about the Axiom transaction, referring to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s major objective of colonizing Mars.

These initial Crew Dragon trips to the space station will serve as “precursor missions” for Houston-based Axiom, which was founded in 2016 by veteran NASA ISS manager Mike Suffredini, ahead of the company’s core project of building commercial ISS modules, the first of which is scheduled for installation in 2024. These missions, according to Axiom CEO Suffredini, keep the business on schedule for its commercial space station aspirations.

According to a statement released by SpaceX, “all four crews will receive combined commercial astronaut training from NASA and SpaceX, with SpaceX providing training on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, emergency preparedness training, spacesuit and spacecraft ingress and egress exercises, as well as partial and full simulations.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was built with a combination of private financing and a $3 billion NASA contract as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which was established to restore America’s ability to launch personnel to space from US soil after a decade-long reliance on Russian rockets. Since May 2020, SpaceX has launched three government astronaut teams under that program, with four more slated in the future. Boeing, the program’s second company, is further behind with its Starliner capsule, which is expected to fly its first astronaut crew by the end of the year.

With only two docking ports compatible with Crew Dragon, a cargo-only variant of Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s Starliner, adding four private Axiom-arranged Crew Dragon flights on top of SpaceX’s commercial crew cadence would make for a busy calendar for the ISS. With Starliner flights scheduled and NASA indicating that only two private astronaut flights to the ISS are allowed each year, it’s unclear if all four Axiom missions will be approved for flying until 2023. NASA did not respond to an email seeking comment right away.

During a press briefing on SpaceX’s cargo mission set to fly tomorrow, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said, “We continue to be incredibly busy onboard the International Space Station.” “NASA’s collaboration with the commercial sector is transforming the way we think about low-Earth orbit.”

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