The first-ever private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has arrived. Planned and organised by the private space company Axiom Space, this mission has brought a collection of researchers into space to conduct key studies and experiments in the special circumstances space provides.

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Axiom-1 (the name given to this first mission) received permission from NASA and used a Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX to make its successful flight to the ISS.

Now that the crew has arrived, what are the next steps, how long will they be there and what is the future of private space travel? We've answered these questions below.

When did Axiom-1 launch?

The Axiom-1 flight lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida at exactly 4:17pm BST on April 8. The launch was a success, and so was the return landing of the stage one booster rocket.

The crew eventually arrived at the ISS the next day at around 12:29pm BST where they were greeted by the existing crew onboard.

You can watch the full launch on the NASA YouTube channel.

Who was on the flight?

Originally, Tom Cruise and Doug Liman were suggested as part of a plan to film in space. However, the full crew now includes Michael López-Alegría as the Spacecraft commander, Larry Connor as the Pilot and Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe as Mission Specialists.

While this will be the fifth spaceflight for Michael López-Alegría, for the other three members of the crew this will be their first flights. Michael is a former NASA pilot and now the vice president for Axiom Space. Connor, Pathy and Stibbe are all investors and philanthropists.

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© Axiom Space
CGI image of Axion-1 © Axiom Space

What is the purpose of the Axiom-1 flight?

Axiom Space is a company that is focusing on making space travel more commercially available. With the Axiom-1 flight, this will be the first private mission to the International Space Station. By making space travel more commercially viable, Axiom Space is hoping to improve our understanding of space and the human body by bringing researchers into space.

While on the ISS, the crew members won't just be taking in the expansive views, they will be conducting research into science, education and outreach. Axiom claims this will include 100 hours of human-tended research across approximately 25 different experiments.

Each passenger will be undertaking a different key research area:

Larry Connor

Connor's key area of research will be around space travel's impact on senescent cells (cells that have irreversibly stopped dividing but haven't died) and heart health. These kind of cells have been linked to multiple age-related diseases. On Earth, Connor's research tends to focus on pre- and post-mission MRIs to study the effects of spaceflight environments on spinal and brain tissue.

Mark Pathy

Pathy will be working in partnership with six Canadian universities and two tech startups during his time on the ISS. This will include research into two-way holoportation – a mixed reality app for special lenses that has two-way 3D projections as a hologram to communicate.

He will also conduct observations of Earth, research spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome (a change in visual sharpness experienced by many astronauts) and take part in other projects with different universities.

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Eytan Stibbe

Stibbe will be joining the Axion-1 crew on behalf of the Ramon Foundation and in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency. Axiom has stated that during his time in space, he will be performing experiments and conducting educational activities to connect the younger generation in Israel. There is slightly less detail around the exact experiments that Stibbe will be conducting compared to his fellow researchers.

Which organisation operated the launch?

While the flight was organised by the private space company Axiom Space, it was done using a SpaceX Dragon 2 – a semi-reusable spacecraft. In fact, the two companies – SpaceX and Axiom Space – have signed a deal for three launches: Axiom-1, 2 and 3.

The Dragon spacecraft has already flown three human missions to the ISS. Those were all NASA missions carrying government astronauts. This time, it was the first private crew. The mission received permission from NASA, along with further missions planned by Axiom and SpaceX.

While the space shuttle was provided by SpaceX, Axiom Space handled training, provisions, operational management and most of the general process of the mission.

© Axiom Space
CGI modelling of the Axiom-1 © Axiom Space

Will there be another Axiom launch?

Axiom-1 hasn't even launched yet but Axiom Space has already announced a second launch. While there is no official date yet, Ax-2 already has a commander and pilot lined up. Commanding the operation is Peggy Whitson – a retired astronaut who has completed three previous trips to space. Along with being the first female commander of the ISS, she also holds the American record for the most time in space.

She will be joined by John Shoffner as the Pilot of Ax-2. Unlike Whitson, Shoffner is not an astronaut and doesn't have space training. He is an American racing driver, investor and pilot. He will receive training in ISS systems but also in specialised spacecraft operations.

While at the ISS, the two will be studying single-cell genomics (the study of individuality in cells, looking at new cells and how they differ) in collaboration with a California-based genomics company.

"To experience astronaut training teamed with Peggy is an honour. I am also excited about our upcoming work with 10x Genomics in this first step towards making their single-cell technologies available to researchers in a microgravity environment," said Shoffner.

"I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low-Earth orbit."

Both Whitson and Shoffner are also training as backup pilots for Ax-1 if a replacement is needed.

Future of Axiom Space at the ISS

Despite announcements that the ISS will be retired in 2031, Axiom Space has plans in place for multiple projects aboard the International Space Station. After both Axiom-1 and Axiom-2, the company is looking to attach its own modules to the ISS, the first set to dock in 2024. The 'Axiom Station' will consist of four parts, with the overall aim being an extension of the ISS dedicated to research.

Axiom is working on building this extension now with the help of their partners Thales Alenia Space, which is designing the primary structures of the first module. Final assembly is expected to be completed in Texas, USA, in 2023, and launched in late 2024.

Axiom will continue to send attachments up to join this lab over the next few years, before eventually detaching completely from the ISS. This will allow the Axiom Station to operate on its own and won't have to come down with the ISS in 2031.

There are also plans to extend the research centre to the Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) – a company creating an upcoming Tom Cruise film that will be filmed in space. This would be called SEE-1 and would house a film and TV studio as well as other entertainment streaming services.

If the project goes ahead, will be the first film created in space. SEE has commissioned Axiom to build it, adding it on to the rapidly evolving plans Axiom is proposing.

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Authors

Alex is a staff writer at BBC Science Focus. He has worked for a number of brands covering technology and science with an interest in consumer tech, robotics, AI and future technology.

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