Axiom-1 science & the push toward greater commercialization of space research

by Chris Gebhardt & Haygen Warren

When the Axiom-1 mission lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center early next year, it will take with it four humans on the first-ever all-private astronaut flight to the ISS (International Space Station).

At its core, the mission focuses on science and education, and the four-person crew will conduct 25 experiments with more than 100 hours of hands-on, human-tended research during the mission’s eight-day stay aboard the outpost.

While a relatively short flight, Axiom-1 will feature three crew customers in Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe, with a research focus based on their individual scientific goals and partnerships with various organizations.

Larry Connor

Larry Connor, in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, will research spaceflight’s impact on senescent cells—cells that have stopped dividing—and heart health as well as pre- and post-mission high-resolution MRIs for a study on the effects of spaceflight on spinal and brain tissue.

Senescent cells have been linked to several age-related diseases, and studying their reaction to microgravity could provide new treatment paths for older patients. Meanwhile, the pre- and post-flight MRI analyses are aimed at beginning to understand the types of effects spaceflight might have on various civilians across all ages.

Speaking to Connor’s scientific role on the mission, Christian Maender, Director In-Space Manufacturing & Research at Axiom, told NASASpaceflight, “Larry is passionate about life sciences and health sciences. So he’s bringing to the table a number of experiments, but the key would be the work that he’s going to be doing with Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic.”

“With Mayo, he’s flying stem cells to orbit to look at cardiovascular effects and also to look at senescent cells, which is a type of cell that plays a major role in the aging in the body. Since microgravity in some ways presents a research model of accelerated aging, it becomes a unique place to do work.”

For this experiment, Connor is working with BioServe Space Technologies of the University of Colorado. “They have some really great hardware that allows you to culture–I should say, culture stem cells inside some sealed containers,” said Maender. 

“Larry’s role is going to be basically to keep those cells alive, and by doing so, he’s going to basically keep them incubated on orbit. And then he’ll need to take them out periodically and do some media exchanges—basically, keep feeding the cells. And then ultimately some of those cells will be fixed and some of them will be brought home fresh on the Ax-1 mission.”

Mark Pathy

Mark Pathy has partnered with The Montreal Children’s Hospital, various Canadian research universities, and The Royal Canadian Geographical Society for the Axiom-1 mission and will conduct 12 of the 25 experiments of the flight while also performing Earth observations and working with two proofs-of-concept–one for the first in-space demonstration of two-way holoportation communication.

Crew Dragon Endeavour and Cargo Dragon CRS-23 docked to the ISS in September 2021. (Credit: ESA/NASA/Thomas Pesquet)

The holoportation proof-of-concept will use a “mixed reality” app with special lenses that receive two-way 3D projections as holograms for communication between remote users.

Meanwhile, one of the 12 biomedical experiments for Pathy on Axiom-1 will investigate the relationship between chronic pain and microgravity.

“For Mark, in particular, these projects in many ways use spaceflight as a trigger, so to speak,” related Maender. “You basically need to do research–ask questions and do research pre-flight to understand baseline what’s going on in-flight to understand what changes are going on and then characterize any return to normal on the backend.”

“With some of these pain studies, they’re using either some instruments to create some pressure or they’re using questionnaires to understand where pain is occurring during different parts of the flight. It’s a fairly noninvasive project in that regard.”

“His role is to answer questions on orbit, to do some of the actual experimentation on himself, and answer some more questions about how he’s feeling. And that’s his engagement in that.”

“For another example, he’ll be wearing a biometric shirt that measures a lot of parameters. He’ll be wearing that for another project looking at different aspects of human health, and he’ll have that on for several days at a time, including during some exercise, demonstrating some new technologies that maybe can be used to track human health for the future in space.”

A further biomedical experiment will assess Spaceflight-Associated Nero-Ocular Syndrome, a condition that presents as changes in visual acuity. It has been experienced by numerous astronauts on long-duration missions and is considered high risk for deep space exploration.

In addition to the biomedical research, Pathy will also take part in numerous Earth observations to help identify the impacts of climate change, urbanization, and other factors on ecology and human habitation specifically in the Great Lakes region of North America—with specific emphasis on the impacts to Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes watershed.

Eytan Stibbe

Eytan Stibbe will be the second Israeli to travel to space after Ilan Ramon, who flew as a Payload Specialist aboard the STS-107 international microgravity scientific research flight of the Shuttle Columbia from January 16 – February 1, 2003.

Flying for the Ramon Foundation–named in honor of Ramon who died at the end of his spaceflight with his six crewmembers when the Columbia was lost during atmospheric reentry–Stibbe will perform a variety of scientific, artistic, and educational outreach initiatives during Axiom-1 to help further Israel’s space initiatives.

Fluidic Space Optics by Technion and NASA. (Credit: Megan Ortiz / Axiom Space)

As with the European Space Agency which names each of their astronaut’s missions—Matthias Maurer’s current flight aboard the ISS is called “Cosmic Kiss”–Stibbe’s flight will be called “Rakia,” the Hebrew word for “sky.”

More poignantly to Stibbe’s mission for the Ramon Foundation, “Rakia” is the name of the book published by Ilan Ramon’s widow—a book that included portions of Ramon’s diary which he kept in orbit with him and that survived the breakup of Columbia. In that diary, Ramon translated the line “Above us, only sky” from John Lennon’s song “Imagine” in which he used the word “Rakia.”

Stibbe’s mission will see him perform numerous experiments across the fields of astrophysics, agriculture, optics, communication, biology, healthcare, neurology, and ophthalmology.

“Stibbe has got a whole program that he’s built in concert with the Ramon Foundation, and a lot of the focus of his is on life sciences, the demonstration of new medical capabilities that can be used in space, and then a couple of key projects,” noted Maender. 

“I think the one that I’m most excited about personally is what we call fluidic space optics, where he will be basically creating perfect spherical lenses in orbit using liquid polymers and UV curing capabilities. When you build these liquid lenses in space, if you leave them alone, surface tension will form and you’ll have a perfect lens with no surface imperfections, and then you can solidify them.”

The Axiom-1 crew. Left to right: Larry Connor, Michael López-Alegría, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe. (Credit: Megan Ortiz / Axiom Space)

“The goal, of course, is to look at ‘Can we make really good lenses in orbit that can be used for applications on the ground?’ But even more cool, down the road, you can use them for applications in space where you’re building sensors and optics in space for space.”

“That’s just a taste of what they’re doing.”

The Axiom-1 mission is scheduled to launch no earlier than February 21, 2022, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle and Falcon 9 rocket.

In addition to the three crew customers, the Axiom-1 mission will be commanded by former NASA and veteran astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who’ll be making his fifth trip to space on this flight. López-Alegría previously flew the STS-73, STS-92, and STS-113 missions aboard the Space Shuttle orbiters Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, respectively, as well as the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft for a long duration stay aboard the International Space Station as Commander of Expedition 14.

(Lead image: A SpaceX Crew Dragon approaches the International Space Station for docking. Credit: NASA)

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