Axiom Space taps ISS trailblazer for private space mission

Axiom Space has found its Ax-2 commander as it bids to fly NASA's next private astronaut mission, and it'll be a familiar face in charge for the US space agency. Dr. Peggy Whitson had a storied career at NASA, including first female commander of the International Space Station and holder of the American record for most time spent in space.

In fact, Whiston spent 22 years at the space agency, though it'll be as a private citizen that she takes the reins at Axiom Space. The company is hoping to be the next winner in NASA's commercial flight project, which would see it join SpaceX and others in running missions to the ISS roughly every six months.

Before that, though, there's still Axiom Space's Ax-1 to fly. That'll be the first fully private mission to the ISS, and which is currently scheduled for launch in early 2022. Whitson, along with Ax-2 pilot John P. Shoffner, are training as backup commander and pilot for that mission, which will launch on a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

"Axiom will compete to fly the Ax-2 mission when NASA announces the next private astronaut mission opportunity," the company said today. "If awarded, Ax-2 will further the Houston-based space infrastructure leader's expansion of the commercial human spaceflight market and cement the research opportunities it can make possible for private industry in low-Earth orbit."

Whitson and Shoffner have plenty of work ahead of them. First, they'll need to go through Axiom's astronaut program, so as to be familiar with all the systems and operations required for a safe flight to the ISS and back. However, they'll also need specialist training for the scientific research being undertaken at the space station.

There, Axiom has partnered with 10x Geonomics, a California biotech firm. The two astronauts will be conducting single-cell sequencing experiments in microgravity, with the hope that one day future such missions will be able to offer affordable microgravity research opportunities that are currently fairly cost-prohibitive.

Axiom Space was founded in 2016, as another private space flight startup with big ambitions. Though the company wants first to organize commercial visits to the ISS, it aims to eventually own and operate a commercial space station of its own. Part of that will include unlocking microgravity research and manufacturing, with Axiom planning specialist modules for that from the mid-2020s. Helping foot the bill for that will be a series of space tourism flights, with roughly $55 million price tags.