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SpaceX launches first totally private mission to the International Space Station

Saturday rendezvous planned for historic commercial orbit ride

A retired NASA astronaut and three space tourists are right now tucked inside a SpaceX Dragon capsule above Earth for the first-ever purely commercial mission to the International Space Station.

Flames billowed from the sky as the four-person crew were carried into space by a Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 8 at 1117 ET (1517 UTC). They are expected to arrive at their destination on Saturday at 1054 ET (1454 UTC) if all goes to plan.

Michael Lopéz-Alegría, vice president of business development at Axiom Space and a former NASA astronaut, is flying on the first private flight. He is accompanied by Larry Connor, an American real estate magnate; Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli businessman and former fighter pilot; and Mark Pathy, Canadian CEO of investment firm Maverick.

The commercial space travel industry has grown rapidly. Companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have taken citizens to the edge of space, where they can see planet Earth grow small and stare into their vast surroundings for a brief moment.

Axiom Space is the first startup to sign a deal with NASA to take private passengers to the International Space Station (ISS). The company sorted the training and mission logistics, and partnered up with SpaceX for the transportation.

"What a historic launch!" Bill Nelson, NASA's administrator said in a statement. "NASA's partnership with industry through the commercial cargo and crew programs has led our nation to this new era in human spaceflight — one with limitless potential. Congratulations to Axiom, SpaceX, and the Axiom-1 crew for making this first private mission to the International Space Station a reality."

Once Lopéz-Alegría and the crew arrive at the ISS, they'll be sharing living space with the orbiting lab's Expedition 67 astronauts, including NASA's Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari, and Kayla Barron, ESA's Matthias Maurer, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Sergey Korsokov, and Denis Matveev. The private team will spend eight days in the floating laboratory, and will help carry out 25 scientific research and technology experiments,while enjoying the view.

Axiom Space was founded in 2016 by president and CEO Michael Suffredini, a former NASA International Space Station program manager, and executive chairman Kam Ghaffarian, who led Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, an aerospace contractor that helps train astronauts and operate the ISS.

They envision a future in which everyone from space enthusiasts to researchers can explore the world beyond Earth. "We will usher in a new era in private human spaceflight when they cross the threshold to enter the International Space Station," said Suffredini.

"This journey is the culmination of long hours of training, planning, and dedication from the crew and the entire Axiom Space team, our partners at SpaceX, and of course, a credit to NASA's vision to develop a sustainable presence in low-Earth orbit." ®

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