Axiom-2 blasted off and is taking private astronauts to the International Space Station more than a year after the launch of the first all-private astronaut crew on Axiom-1.
"Let Freedom fly," said Commander Peggy Whitson with the clock at 9 minutes and counting despite an anvil cloud lurking about 5 miles away from Launch Complex 39A.
The Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center at 5:37 p.m. ET carrying Freedom, Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. Freedom is ferrying four astronauts to the International Space Station for a 10-day mission.
Goal: Develop the first commercial space station
"These are just the leading edge of one aspect to the preparation for our real goal, operating a completely commercial space station and laboratory in low earth orbit," Axiom’s Duke Grady explained on the company’s prelaunch live cast.
"This is the first private mission with private astronauts and astronauts representing non-U.S. nations through direct commercial arrangements," he added.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on the same cast that NASA’s goal was to become a customer instead of a provider for transport to low earth orbit labs. He said the arrangement would be more economical.
"We're so proud to be partnering with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for this mission. And while we view this relationship with them as a partnership," Grady said.
Meet the crew
"They're also our customers. NASA is another customer in this process," he continued. "They'll actually be paying for some of Commander Peggy Whitson’s time while she's onboard the station to conduct specific science that's of importance to them."
Whitson is a former NASA astronaut. Her 665 days in space give her the title of the most time in space for any American astronaut and the most time for any other female astronaut in the world. She is a two-time ISS commander and has 21 experiments in human life sciences and microgravity under her belt, according to Axiom.
Pilot John Shoffner will lead outreach and educational events, connecting with teachers and students to forward STEM education.
Mission Specialists Ali Alquarni and Rayyanah Barnawi are both from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Alquarni’s expertise is piloting. Barnawi is a biomedical researcher.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket detached and returned to Florida about 8 minutes into the mission. During the 16-hour trip, the crew will spend half sleeping.
On Monday morning, Freedom is scheduled to dock with the ISS.
What will the astronauts do on the ISS?
On the ISS, the crew will do about 20 experiments, including weather research, while traveling at 17,500 mph.
"They will spend eight days on station conducting a variety of science investigations and technology demonstrations, including radiation protection research, studies on how to create rain and how to enhance our understanding of dangerous thunderstorms, as well as DNA research with nanomaterials and reprogramming skin cells to help create regenerative medicines," said Grady.
"When they are not hands-on with research, they will be participating in numerous outreach events connecting with groups around the world. John, for instance, will use the station's ham radio to share a message with students," he continued.
Axiom hopes to launch the first section of its low earth orbit lab in 2025. NASA expects to decommission the ISS in 2030.