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All-private astronaut team lifts off on landmark launch to space station

A SpaceX rocket ship blasted off on Friday (April 8) carrying the first all-private astronaut team ever launched to the International Space Station (ISS), a flight hailed by industry executives and NASA as a milestone in the commercialization of low-Earth orbit.

The four-man team selected by Houston-based startup Axiom Space Inc for its landmark debut spaceflight and orbital science mission lifted off at 11:17 a.m. EDT (1517 GMT) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Live video webcast by Axiom showed the 25-story-tall SpaceX launch vehicle – consisting of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped by its Crew Dragon capsule – streaking into the blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast atop a fiery, yellowish tail of exhaust. The reusable Falcon 9 rocket, flying it’s fifth mission, later returned to Earth, landing in a drone ship in the sea called, “A Shortfall of Gravitas”.

Cameras inside the crew compartment beamed footage of the four men strapped into the pressurized cabin, seated calmly in their helmeted white-and-black flight suits moments before the rocket soared toward space.

While the space station has hosted civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory.

If all goes as planned, the quartet led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will arrive at the space station on Saturday, after a 20-hour-plus flight, as their SpaceX-supplied Crew Dragon capsule docks with the orbiting outpost some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth.

Lopez-Alegria, 63, is the Spanish-born mission commander and Axiom vice president of business development. His second-in-command is Larry Connor, an entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s but the company did not provide his precise age.

Rounding out the Ax-1 team are Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists.

They will be sharing the weightless work environment with seven regular crew members aboard the ISS – three American astronauts, a German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.

SpaceX, the privately funded company of billionaire Elon Musk, also is providing the Falcon 9 rocket to propel the Crew Dragon to space and is directing mission control for the flight from its headquarters near Los Angeles.

A joint Axiom-SpaceX live webcast showed the four-man team inside the crew compartment, seated calmly in their helmeted white-and-black flight suits as ground technicians prepared the spacecraft for blastoff.

NASA, besides furnishing the launch site, assumes responsibility for the astronauts once they rendezvous with the space station to undertake eight days of science and biomedical research.

The mission, representing a partnership among Axiom, SpaceX and NASA, is touted by all three as a major step in the latest expansion of commercial space ventures collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy, or “LEO economy” for short.

(Production: Pavithra George)

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