Launch of Axiom’s commercial space station mission delayed until Friday

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Ax-1 pilot Larry Connor, commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe during a test with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

The launch of the first all-private crew to the International Space Station has been delayed to Friday, officials announced late Monday. The four commercial space fliers will ride to the station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The mission, managed by the Houston company Axiom Space, was originally scheduled for launch in February, but delays in preparing the Crew Dragon spacecraft and schedule constraints with other visiting vehicles at the space station forced officials to move the launch date to late March.

Managers then moved the launch to April 3 to allow more time for Dragon spacecraft preparations, then to April 6, after the schedule for the SLS countdown dress rehearsal was confirmed for April 3.

The additional delay from April 6 to April 8 was not related to testing of NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket on a nearby launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but associated with an issue involving the Dragon spacecraft, multiple sources said. Axiom did not disclose an official reason for the two-day launch delay this week.

NASA gave priority to the SLS wet dress rehearsal on pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in recent days.

Axiom’s commercial crew launch, known as Ax-1, couldn’t go forward on the same day as NASA planned to load cryogenic propellants into the giant SLS moon rocket because pad 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA for astronaut missions, shares some ground infrastructure and supplies with nearby pad 39B.

But NASA said last week that SpaceX could conduct the Ax-1 launch a day before or after the SLS dress rehearsal. NASA scrubbed two attempts at loading cryogenic propellants into the SLS rocket Sunday and Monday, and is expected to wait until after the Ax-1 launch to make another run at the practice countdown, a precursor to launching the huge moon rocket on its first test flight around the moon later this year.

SpaceX moved ahead with preparations on its Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft last week, when the capsule rolled from the SpaceX’s processing facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station over to the hangar at pad 39A, where it was to be integrated with its Falcon 9 rocket.

The Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft was SpaceX’s first ship to carry astronauts into orbit on NASA’s Demo-2 test flight in 2020. The Ax-1 mission will mark the third flight of the reusable capsule.

SpaceX plans to roll the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft to pad 39A Tuesday, then perform a test-firing of the Falcon 9 booster’s main engines Wednesday. Liftoff from pad 39A on Friday is set for 11:17 a.m. EDT (1517 GMT).

Assuming a launch Friday, the Ax-1 mission will dock with the International Space Station around 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT) Saturday.

Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, a retired NASA astronaut who has spent nearly 258 days in space, will command the Ax-1 mission. Lopez-Alegria is an Axiom employee, and his three crewmates are paying their way to the space station as Axiom customers.

Larry Connor, head of a real estate investment firm and an experienced private pilot, will serve as co-pilot of the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. The other private astronauts are Mark Pathy, an investor and philanthropist from Canada, and Eytan Stibbe, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and a former F-16 fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

The crew trained for the mission in Houston and at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. All four private astronauts are now in Florida in quarantine in preparation for their launch to the space station.

The Ax-1 mission will last about 10 days, with roughly eight days on the space station, where Lopez-Alegria, Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe will perform experiments, educational and public relations outreach activities, and enjoy their time in orbit.

Their arrival at the station will temporarily raise the size of the station crew to 11 people. Landing of the Ax-1 mission is tentatively scheduled for April 18, when the Dragon spacecraft will splash down under parachutes off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX will then launch the next long-duration crew to the space station no earlier than April 21 on the company’s brand new Crew Dragon Freedom spacecraft. That mission, under contract to NASA, will launch ferry three U.S. astronauts and an Italian-born European Space Agency astronaut to the space station for a mission set to last nearly five months.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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