The private Axiom-3 mission to the International Space Station is now in orbit after a successful launch from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The mission features a crew representing five different countries, four of them wholly or partly in Europe.
Falcon 9 B1080-5 and Crew Dragon C212 Freedom were scheduled to launch from Pad 39A on Wednesday but scrubbed for 24 hours to evaluate data on chute testing, pushing the T-0 to 4:49 p.m. ET. The flight launched after a smooth countdown and beat some approaching weather to send the Axiom-3 crew and the Crew Dragon Freedom to orbit.
This flight is the first crewed space mission of 2024, and it waslofted on a trajectory to rendezvous and dock with the ISS. A successful docking at the forward port of the Harmony module took place on Saturday morning, Jan. 20, at 5:42 AM EST (10:42 UTC).
Following second stage separation, B1080-5 successfully returned to the concrete pad at Landing Zone 1, conducting a return to launch site (RTLS) landing. The recent introduction of RTLS landings for Crew Dragon missions helps minimize the use of marine assets, particularly as the drone ship Just Read the Instructions undergoes work in Charleston, South Carolina.
During Crew Dragon’s ascent phase, there are several abort zones designated for the spacecraft to splash down safely should an issue occur during powered flight. Weather for these zones is a watch item for all Crew Dragon flights, and enough zones were usable so that the launch could proceed.
While the abort zones were being watched, the latest forecast during the countdown prior to Axiom-3’s launch was for a 40 percent chance of launch criteria violation, but the weather stayed good long enough for B1080-5 and Crew Dragon Freedom to fly.
The 45th Weather Squadron of the USSF’s 45th Space Launch Delta had earlier come out with a forecast showing only a 20 percent chance of launch criteria violation for Thursday. Primary concerns were the cumulus cloud rule and flight through precipitation.
B1080 got its start by flying the Axiom-2 mission, commanded by Peggy Whitson and flying two Saudi Arabian citizens to orbit. The booster has also launched the Euclid space telescope, Starlink 6-11, and Starlink 6-24. Crew Dragon Freedom, meanwhile, has flown on the Crew-4 and Axiom-2 missions to ISS. Freedom is the fourth Crew Dragon to fly, joining sister ships Endeavour, Resilience, and Endurance.
The crew for this flight is commanded by dual US and Spanish citizen Michael Lopez-Alegria, a veteran astronaut with multiple Space Shuttle and ISS missions under his belt. His first space flight was STS-73 in 1995 aboard the shuttle Columbia, and he also flew aboard STS-92 and STS-113 as well as Soyuz TMA-9 to the ISS as part of Expedition 14.
Lopez-Alegria’s last space mission was the Axiom-1 flight, which was the first wholly private mission to the International Space Station. The retired NASA astronaut, born in Madrid, Spain on May 30, 1958, is now a commercial astronaut working for Axiom, and making his sixth overall spaceflight.
Lopez-Alegria holds a bachelor’s degree in Systems Engineering from the US Naval Academy as well as a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School. As a naval aviator, he served as an instructor pilot, a reconnaissance plane pilot, and as a test pilot at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.
Axiom-3’s pilot is Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, who also has experience flying to the edge of space aboard VSS Unity during the Galactic 01 mission last year. Villadei, born in Rome, Italy on April 29, 1974, has served in the Italian Air Force since 1998. In 2008, Villadei underwent cosmonaut training at Star City in Russia, and earned his cosmonaut wings in 2012, while also being certified to operate as a Soyuz flight engineer in 2015.
Col. Villadei has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Naples Federico II, and a specialization in astronautical engineering from the University of Rome. He became a member of the Air Staff and was assigned to the Air Staff’s Space Policy Office in 2011, and is now the head of the Space Policy and Operations Office. In addition, he is also a member of the Italian Space Agency’s scientific committee.
Mission Specialist Alper Gezeravci has now become the first Turkish citizen to fly to space. Gezeravci, born in Silifke, Türkiye in December 1979, is a veteran pilot, having flown high-performance jet aircraft with the Turkish Air Force for 15 years, followed by seven years flying for Turkish Airlines. He also has a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the Turkish Air Force Academy in Istanbul and a master’s degree from the USAF Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Rounding out the crew is mission specialist Marcus Wandt from Sweden. Wandt, born in Hammaro, Sweden on Sept. 22, 1980, is representing the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA has dubbed his mission “Muninn” after a raven in Norse mythology. Wandt, who is now the second Swede to fly into space after Shuttle astronaut Christer Fuglesang, will work alongside Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen, currently onboard the Station, whose own mission is known as “Huginn” by ESA, after another raven in Norse mythology.
Wandt was a fighter pilot in the Swedish Air Force from 2003 to 2014 and became a test pilot for Saab Aeronautics after graduating from the United States Naval Test Pilot School. Besides being promoted to chief test pilot at Saab, he also earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Chalmers University of Technology.
The Axiom-3 mission is scheduled to last approximately two weeks, while Axiom-1 lasted around 17 days after postponements of its trip home due to bad weather at the splashdown sites. Axiom-2 spanned 10 days, which is currently the shortest such mission to date.
While Axiom-3 is in orbit, there will be 11 people aboard the ISS and three people aboard the Chinese Tiangong Space Station, making a total of 14 people in orbit. If Virgin Galactic’s next flight overlaps with this mission, there would be 20 people above 80 kilometers altitude for a few minutes, tying the record for the most people in space at one time.
The crew of Axiom-3 will conduct over 30 experiments during their time aboard the Station, including experiments related to food consumption in space, radiation shielding, ovarian function in microgravity, a Turkish plant experiment involving CRISPR gene editing, biological experiments on the astronauts, and other research.
Once Axiom-3’s stay at the ISS is finished, the spacecraft will return to Earth in the same manner as other Crew Dragon missions and is scheduled to use one of the splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
(Lead image: Axiom-3 launch on Jan. 18, 2024 from Pad 39A at KSC. Credit: Sawyer Rosenstein for NSF)