Axiom Space launched the second-ever all-private crew to the International Space Station (ISS). The international crew of Axiom-2 (Ax-2) flew onboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Liftoff was on May 21 at 5:37 PM EDT (21:37 UTC) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center, before docking with the ISS on Monday.
This mission makes history with its crew and the rocket launching them toward the ISS.
The booster that launched this crew was B1080 on its first flight. Marking the first time SpaceX is returning a booster to a landing zone on a crew mission, B1080 conducted a return to launch site landing, landing at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1), located on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. All previous crewed missions landed on drone ships located in the Atlantic Ocean.
According to William Gerstenmaier, the vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, this will be standard practice for crew missions for the foreseeable future. During a media teleconference, Gerstenmaier said the decision was made as a result of the performance seen on Starlink launches.
“We’ve always had this kind of capability before, we just weren’t sure we’d always get the performance,” Gerstenmaier said. “The number of Falcon flights we’ve flown have allowed us to say that performance is available and can be used where it’s needed to be used going forward.”
It was also noted that this removes a weather criterion for the launch as land landings remove the need for booster recovery weather to be green.
The Crew Dragon capsule carrying the Ax-2 crew to and from the ISS is C212, better known as Freedom. This is the second flight for this capsule, having previously flown the Crew-4 mission to and from the ISS. That mission launched in April 2022 and returned to Earth in October off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.
The Ax-2 mission is expected to spend eight days aboard the ISS. Docking occurred May 22 at 9:10 AM EDT (13:10 UTC).
While aboard the station, Axiom Space reports there will be at least 20 different experiments to complete. It also stated it learned from the first Axiom flight that crew was unable to conduct the 20 planned experiments in only eight days.
The astronauts aboard this mission include two members from the United States and two crew members from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The commander for this mission is Dr. Peggy Whitson, 63, who is currently the director of human spaceflight for Axiom. This marked the first time a woman has commanded a private space mission; however, that’s not her only record. Whitson previously flew on three long-duration spaceflights and accumulated 665 days in space. That’s more than any other American astronaut and more than any female space flyers in the world.
Whitson flew on Expeditions 5, 16, and 50/51/52. During that time she conducted more than 60 hours of spacewalks while also becoming the first female commander of the ISS, the only woman to command the station twice, and the first woman, nonmilitary chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office. She has been in the space industry, including time at NASA and private companies like Axiom, for more than 37 years.
The pilot for this mission is John Shoffner. Early in his life, he knew he wanted to go to space, forming a young astronauts club as a child in Kentucky. Shoffner is hoping to use this mission as a chance to share his love for science, technology, engineering, and math with kids on the ground.
Shoffner originally worked on materials and methods for up-and-coming fiber optic cables in the 1980s. He served as the CEO of Dura-Line until he departed in 1997 to pursue his passions. One of those passions is skydiving. He has completed more than 3,000 skydives and base jumps, even meeting his wife during a skydive in 1999.
The husband-and-wife duo went on to create a European-based endurance motorsports racing team. Together they had many class wins and podium finishes driving the Mercedes AMG GT3 in the Nürburgring VLN Endurance Series, the ADAC Nürburgring 24-hour, and the GT Open International Series.
Shoffner is also a well-established pilot with more than 8,500 flight hours to his name, including flying in air shows for more than 25 years with multiple aircraft-type ratings from single engine to commercial ratings.
Shoffner is also the only person on this mission to pay for his seat. The price has not been disclosed.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is sponsoring two crewmembers on Ax-2. Mission Specialist Rayyanah Barnawi, 33, will be the first Saudi female astronaut. After graduating with a Bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from Otago University in New Zealand and a Master’s in biomedical sciences from Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia, Barnawi has now spent more than nine years as a research lab technician at King Faisal Specialist Hospital working on stem cell and tissue re-engineering programs.
The second mission specialist is Ali Alqarni, 31. Alqarni says he first became interested in space when visiting the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas, while training with the U.S. Air Force as a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force. He will become the second Saudi male astronaut following Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-51G mission in 1985.
Alqarni accumulated more than 2,300 flight hours during his 12 years of flying, primarily piloting the F-15SA in service to the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The crew of four performed a dry dress rehearsal on May 19, where they ran through all procedures that will happen on launch day up until fuel loading. The crew suit up, take their special Teslas to the base of LC-39A, ride the elevator up, and get set in their seats with the hatch closed. This allows the astronauts, ground crew, and controllers to run through what will happen on launch day.
A static fire of B1080 was completed at 9:37 PM EDT the same day (02:37 UTC May 20), where the rocket is fueled and all nine Merlin 1-D engines ignite for a few seconds while the rocket remains secured to the pad.
Just like during the dry dress rehearsal, the crew suited up and drove to the pad hours before liftoff. They ingressed Crew Dragon Freedom and their seats were rotated back. Once the crew ingresses and communication checks were completed, the close-out crew closed the hatch, which will not be opened again until splashdown following a successful mission (or after a launch scrub).
The “go” for propellant load was given by the launch director 45 minutes before liftoff. The crew access arm, which was used to load the astronauts, retracted three minutes later.
At T-39 minutes, the launch escape system was armed, which could pull the crew away from the rocket in the event of an emergency either on the pad or in the air.
Per Falcon 9 flows, the RP-1, a rocket-grade kerosene fuel, is loaded at T-35 minutes along with the first stage liquid oxygen (LOX). Second stage LOX load starts at T-16 minutes. The dragon capsule transitions to internal power at T-5 minutes. The flight computer begins preflight checks, which is also known as Falcon 9 entering startup, at T-1 minute, with go for launch 45 seconds before liftoff.
Once in flight, the first stage burned for two minutes 26 seconds. At that point, the Merlin 1-D engines shut down, the first and second stages separated, and the second stage Merlin Vacuum engine ignited, propelling the crew to their parking orbit. The second stage’s engine burned until T+8 minutes 47 seconds.
Meanwhile, B1080 started a nearly one-minute-long boost backburn at T+2 minutes 39 seconds, allowing the booster to slow forward momentum and begin a turn back toward LZ-1. An entry burn happened at T+6 minutes 25 seconds to slow the vehicle down, followed by a landing burn at T+7 minutes 31 seconds. The booster landed back at Cape Canaveral just under eight minutes after launching.
The crew separated from the second stage approximately 12 minutes into the flight, followed by the nose cone opening about 46 seconds later. This exposes all of the important elements needed for Dragon to operate in space and rendezvous with the ISS.
This mission was moved after the Falcon Heavy carrying Viasat-3 Americas was delayed, occupying the same spot on LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center that this mission will fly from.
Next up, NASA will launch the CRS-28 resupply mission to the ISS aboard a different Falcon 9 rocket, again from LC-39A. A crew tower is in the works at SpaceX’s second pad, Space Launch Complex 40 on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, however it is not yet completed.
The ISS also has a very busy manifest. That includes the Crew-7 mission this summer, the first crew flight to the ISS aboard Boeing’s Starliner, and other resupply vehicles such as Cygnus and the Russian Progress.
Axiom is hoping to launch its third private mission toward the end of 2023.
(Lead image: B1080 launches from LC-39A – via Max Evans for NSF)