All-Private Astronaut Team Brings Second Israeli to Space in Landmark Launch
Investor and ex-fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe became the second Israeli in space on Friday, as a SpaceX rocket ship blasted off with the first all-private astronaut team ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS).
The four-man team selected by Houston-based startup Axiom Space Inc for its landmark debut spaceflight and orbital science mission lifted off at 11:17 a.m. EDT from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The flight makes Stibbe the second Israeli in space, after Ilan Ramon, who perished with six NASA crewmates in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Live video webcast by Axiom showed the 25-story-tall SpaceX launch vehicle — consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by its Crew Dragon capsule — streaking into the blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast atop a fiery, yellowish tail of exhaust.
Cameras inside the crew compartment beamed footage of the four men strapped into the pressurized cabin, seated calmly in their helmeted white-and-black flight suits as the rocket soared toward space.
Nine minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage delivered the crew capsule into its preliminary orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the rocket’s reusable lower stage, having detached from the rest of the spacecraft, flew itself back to Earth and safely touched down on a landing platform floating on a drone vessel in the Atlantic.Ey
Launch webcast commentator Kate Tice described the liftoff as “absolutely picture-perfect.” One crew member could be heard telling mission control in a radio transmission, “That was a hell of a ride.”
If all goes as planned, the quartet led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday, after a 20-hour-plus flight, and the autonomously operated Crew Dragon will dock with the orbiting outpost some 250 miles above the Earth.
SpaceX, the rocket company founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk, was directing mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.
NASA, besides furnishing the launch site, will assume responsibility for the astronauts once they rendezvous with the space station to undertake eight days of science and biomedical research while in orbit.
COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT MILESTONE
The mission, representing a partnership among Axiom, SpaceX and NASA, has been touted by all three as a major step in the expansion of commercial space ventures collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy, or “LEO economy” for short.
“We’re taking commercial business off the face of the Earth and putting it up in space,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said before the flight, adding the shift enables his agency to focus more on sending humans back to the moon, to Mars and on other deep space exploration.
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 ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.
The four-man Axiom team will be sharing the weightless work environment with seven regular, government-paid ISS crew members — three American astronauts, a German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.
Lopez-Alegria, 63, the Spanish-born Axiom mission commander, is also company’s vice president for business development. His second-in-command is Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.
Rounding out the Ax-1 team are the investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.
The Axiom crew members may appear to have a lot in common with many of the wealthy passengers taking suborbital rides in recent months aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services offered by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively.
But Axiom said its mission goes far beyond space tourism, with each crew member undergoing hundreds of hours of astronaut training with both NASA and SpaceX.
The Ax-1 team also will be conducting about two dozen science experiments aboard ISS, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity, company executives said.