Virgin Galactic said Monday that it no longer plans to conduct a key test flight of its spacecraft this week because of a surge in new Covid-19 cases and resulting related restrictions in New Mexico, home to the company’s glitzy spaceport.
Axiom, a Houston-based company that focuses on arranging commercial flights to space, announced that Whitson will pilot a mission dubbed AX-2, which could be among the first privately funded civilian missions to space to launch from US soil.
“It’s a little bit of an addiction,” Whitson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane about her desire to return to orbit. Even with 665 total days in space already – almost two years – under her belt, Whitson, who first flew into space in 2002, says she hopes this mission won’t be her last. She says she wants “many more — more and more and more and more; as many as I can get.”
John Shoffner, an entrepreneur, race car driver, and pilot with over 8,500 flight hours in various aircraft, will join Whitson on the mission as a tourist.
AX-2 will make use of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to carry Whitson and Shoffner to the International Space Station, the two-decade-old laboratory that orbits about 200 miles above the Earth’s surface.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the same type of capsule that NASA is using to fly its own astronauts to the station. Since SpaceX still technically owns those vehicles, however, the company is allowed to sell seats or entire missions to anyone who can afford a multimillion-dollar ticket. It’s all part of the US space industry’s plan to drastically expand the amount of private-sector activity in space after decades of government dominance.
The financial terms of the AX-2 deal were not disclosed nor is it clear who is funding the trip, but Whitson noted: “I’m not writing a check.” When asked, Shoffner said only that he’s “happy to be along for the ride.”
Previously, the US government has indicated that Crew Dragon seats could cost about $55 million each.
During Whitson and Shoffner’s stay on the ISS, they’ll live alongside professional astronauts — including some of Whitson’s former colleagues — who use the orbiting laboratory for scientific research.
Whitson, who nabbed the American record for time spent in space during her 22-year NASA career, said the AX-2 mission will likely be less onerous than the trips she’s made to space on behalf of the US space agency. Still, Whitson said, she and Shoffner will be keeping busy: Shoffner plans to host livestreams from space to encourage math and science education. And they’ll be supporting research projects for a company called 10XGenomics, Shoffner said.
Ahead of the mission, they’ll also endure just as much training as they would for a NASA mission, Whitson said.
It’s not clear when AX-2 will take off. First, NASA must formally approve Axiom’s plans to make use of the International Space Station, and the space agency has previously said it will only allow two privately funded trips ISS per year to ensure that visitors don’t interfere with the work of active NASA astronauts. Axiom has already secured one such slot, for a mission called AX-1, which is slated to take off in 2022.