The astronauts on the International Space Station could have some visitors next year.
SpaceX announced it has signed a deal with startup Axiom Space, which plans to take tourists, private researchers, astronauts from foreign countries and other individuals outside of NASA’s astronaut corps to the ISS. The flight will accommodate three passengers on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — a fully-autonomous, gumdrop-shaped capsule that measures about 13-feet across — alongside a trained flight commander.
Axiom’s first mission could launch as soon as the second half of 2021, according to a joint press release.
Crew Dragon will link up with the space station and allow the passengers to spend at least eight days there before returning to Earth.
“This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space -— a first for a commercial entity,” said Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini, who served as manager of NASA’s International Space Station program from 2005 to 2015, in a statement. “Procuring the transportation marks significant progress toward that goal.”
Axiom declined to share information about pricing, but previous tourism missions to the ISS have cost passengers tens of millions of dollars.
The Axiom deal marks the second space tourism-related announcement for SpaceX in a month. The company, which is run by billionaire Elon Musk, said in February that it will work with a company called Space Adventures to organize a trip orbiting the Earth for a handful of travelers.
Space Adventures previously organized eight trips to the International Space Station for ultra-wealthy travelers between 2001 and 2009, but those missions relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Axiom’s tourism mission could mark the first time in history that a US spacecraft is used to take tourists to the ISS.
Before any of that can happen, however, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon needs to be certified for human spaceflight and prove it can serve its intended purpose: Keeping the ISS fully staffed with professionally trained astronauts.
NASA asked the private sector to design spacecraft capable of replacing the Space Shuttle Program after it retired in 2011. The space agency awarded SpaceX $2.6 billion for the task. Boeing struck a similar deal valued at $4.2 billion to develop its Starliner spacecraft.
Both spacecraft are years overdue. And since 2011, NASA has relied on the Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft to get US astronauts to the space station.
But after completing its last major testing milestone in January, Crew Dragon now appears to be on track to fly its first crewed mission by spring.
NASA has said from the beginning that, even though it paid for development of the spacecraft, Boeing and SpaceX will still own and operate their vehicles and will be allowed to use them for other types of missions, including space tourism.
The ISS, which is essentially a giant orbiting laboratory, has hosted a rotating staff of astronauts from the US and dozens of other countries for the past two decades. NASA has talked at length about encouraging more commercial activity at the space station, which orbits about 200 miles above ground.
Last year, the space agency said it would allow up to two trips to the ISS per year for non-government astronauts.
A NASA spokesperson said Axiom’s tourism plan is in line with its “broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization” of space. Though, the agency’s priority is to get Crew Dragon ready to fly its own astronauts, the NASA spokesperson said via email.
It should be noted that plans to fly wealthy thrill-seekers into space are frequently altered or abandoned.
Last year, for example, a company called Bigelow Aerospace said it would organize trips to the ISS using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The company planned to sell tickets for about $52 million a piece, but those plans were later canceled.
And, in 2017, SpaceX talked about sending tourists on a flight around the moon aboard a Crew Dragon capsule. The company ditched those plans to focus on designing a gargantuan spacecraft and rocket system called Starship, which is currently in the early stages of development.
The space industry could soon be headed for a tourism revolution if SpaceX and others make good on their plans.
Two US-based companies — Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company — are separately developing vehicles for suborbital space tourism. They’ll offer brief flights to about 60 miles over the Earth’s surface for scenic views and a few minutes of weightlessness.