CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX launched three rich businessmen and their astronaut escort to the International Space Station on Friday for more than a week’s stay, as NASA joins Russia in hosting guests at the world’s most expensive tourist destination.
It’s SpaceX’s first private charter flight to the orbiting lab after two years of carrying astronauts there for NASA.
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Arriving at the space station Saturday will be an American, Canadian and Israeli who run investment, real estate and other companies. They’re paying $55 million apiece for the rocket ride and accommodations, all meals included.
Russia has been hosting tourists at the space station -- and before that the Mir station -- for decades. Just last fall, a Russian movie crew flew up, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant.
NASA is finally getting into the act, after years of opposing space station visitors.
Their tickets include access to all but the Russian portion of the space station -- they’ll need permission from the three cosmonauts on board. Three Americans and a German also live up there.
Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the chaperone, plans to avoid talking about politics and the war in Ukraine while he’s at the space station.
“I honestly think that it won’t be awkward. I mean maybe a tiny bit,” he said. He expects the “spirit of collaboration will shine through.”
#Ax1 crew has lifted off! Godspeed! Go #Ax1. https://t.co/wsmxyY0vNt— Axiom Space (@Axiom_Space) April 8, 2022
The private Axiom Space company arranged the visit with NASA for its three paying customers: Larry Connor of Dayton, Ohio, who runs the Connor Group; Mark Pathy, founder and CEO of Montreal’s Mavrik Corp.; and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot and founding partner of Vital Capital.
Before the launch, their enthusiasm was obvious: Stibbe did a little dance when he arrived at the rocket at Kennedy Space Center.
People from near and far also joined in on the excitement, coming to Jetty Park to witness the historical launch.
Carl and Pat Tortorige were wrapping up a cross country road trip at Jetty Park. The couple from Illinois said they used to camp at the site more than 20 years ago. They said it was lucky their timing coincided with the rocket launch.
“We’re just traveling around. We just decided to come back through here where it all started,” Carl Tortorige said.
SpaceX and NASA have been upfront with them about the risks of spaceflight, said Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months at the space station 15 years ago.
“There’s no fuzz, I think, on what the dangers are or what the bad days could look like,” Lopez-Alegria told The Associated Press before the flight.
Each visitor has a full slate of experiments to conduct during their nine to 10 days there, one reason they don’t like to be called space tourists.
“They’re not up there to paste their nose on the window,” said Axiom’s co-founder and president, Michael Suffredini, a former NASA space station program manager.
Liftoff of Falcon 9 and Dragon! pic.twitter.com/Ru5dTDI72J— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 8, 2022
The three businessmen are the latest to take advantage of the opening of space to those with deep pockets. Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin is taking customers on 10-minute rides to the edge of space, while Virgin Galactic expects to start flying customers on its rocket ship later this year.
The couple who watched Friday’s historic moment remembers watching shuttle launches while staying at Jetty Park. They said they’re excited to see what’s next for the future of space exploration.
“It is neat. Who would have ever thought when this all started way back with President Kennedy and saying we’re going to put a man on the moon and so forth that we’d be at this point where private entities are going into space and doing the things they are? It’s just exciting,” Pat Tortorige said. “What is the future going to be like? It’s really cool to think what are we going to do next?”
Friday’s flight is the second private charter for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which took a billionaire and his guests on a three-day orbit ride last year.
Axiom is targeting next year for its second private flight to the space station. More customer trips will follow, with Axiom adding its own rooms to the orbiting complex beginning in 2024. After about five years, the company plans to detach its compartments to form a self-sustaining station -- one of several commercial outposts intended to replace the space station once it’s retired and NASA shifts to the moon.
At an adjacent pad during Friday’s launch: NASA’s new moon rocket, which is awaiting completion of a dress rehearsal for a summertime test flight.
As a gift for their seven station hosts, the four visitors are taking up paella and other Spanish cuisine prepared by celebrity chef Jose Andres. The rest of their time at the station, NASA’s freeze-dried chow will have to do.
The automated SpaceX capsule is due back with the four on April 19.
Main engine cutoff and stage separation confirmed. Second stage engine burn underway pic.twitter.com/JWfxEKzu4J— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 8, 2022
Connor is honoring Ohio’s air and space legacy, taking up a fabric swatch from the Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk flyer and gold foil from the Apollo 11 command module from the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta.
Only the second Israeli to launch to space, Stibbe will continue a thunderstorm experiment begun by the first -- Ilan Ramon, who died aboard shuttle Columbia in 2003. They were in the same fighter pilot squadron.
Stibbe is carrying copies of recovered pages of Ramon’s space diary, as well as a song composed by Ramon’s musician son and a painting of pages falling from the sky by his daughter.
“To be a part of this unique crew is a proof for me that there’s no dream beyond reach,” he said.