Axiom Space revealed on Tuesday that retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and veteran Grand Tour (GT) racer John Shoffner would serve as the commander and the pilot, respectively, of the company’s second manned commercial spaceflight to the ISS.
“There is no one better than Peggy – who would be history’s second private mission commander to the ISS – to lead the way on a mission so central to that plan, and we are thrilled to have beside her a pilot as driven and committed to this vision as John to cement this new era,” Axiom CEO Michael Struffredini said in a company release on Tuesday.
— Axiom Space (@Axiom_Space) May 25, 2021
Whitson’s background includes a 22-year career at NASA that saw her become the first female commander and first science officer on the ISS, all while maintaining the American record for time spent in space. Her time in the cosmos saw her reach a near total of 666 days.
“I’m thrilled to get to fly to space again and lead one of the first of these pioneering missions, marking a new era of human spaceflight,” Whitson said in the release. “But even more than that, I’m eager for the chance on Ax-2 to open space up to the first full generation of private astronauts and directly link John to the research opportunities on the ISS.”
“In the time we’ve already spent together as crewmates, it’s clear to me that John will be an excellent pilot and researcher. It’s a pleasure to take him under my wing,” the veteran astronaut added.
As for Shoffner, he began his career as a pilot at the age of 17 and has logged 8,500 hours of experience with multiple aircraft and helicopters. Though Shoffner holds an impressive resume, according to CBS News, he believes with the help of Whitson, there is more training to be accomplished.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 25, 2021
As a pilot Schoffner believes, “we're not just up there riding in an automated vehicle with nothing to do, we have to monitor systems and verify operations," but that when it comes to manning a flight to space, “there are those conditions where you can lose (communication), lose data links or, you know, things go offline, so you have to be able to step in."
For Whitson, she is excited about the trip back into space as it provides the opportunity for expanding the field of space training for different types of travelers, but also maintaining transparency associated with the risks of being in space.
"The level varies depending on the objectives that you want to achieve during the mission, which I think is great because people go for different reasons. And we need to try and find the optimal training level for that,” Whitson told the outlet, adding that “there are risks associated with being in space, and I think it’s incumbent on every agency (that) is providing that capability to be up front about that.”
— Peggy Whitson (@AstroPeggy) May 25, 2021
The Ax-2 mission, which will span eight days, plans to launch four people to the ISS, one of whom will be chosen through a new Discovery channel reality television series, titled “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?”
On May 18, it was announced that Discovery had ordered the eight-episode competition series to air in 2022. The series follows regular contestants competing through a variety of challenges designed to mimic the actual training necessary to qualify for the spaceflight and life on board the ISS.
Whitson believes that allowing the opportunity for more space access is important for the future of space flights. "I have always said how important I think it is for more and more people to have access to space. And I think establishing a commercial platform in space is going to offer that and enable it," she said.
Axiom Space is not the first aerospace industry to launch a commercial spaceflight. Roscosmos, Russia’s state corporation for space activities, sent 10 wealthy civilian space tourists to the ISS in 2001 at a price of tens of millions of dollars per seat. NASA had recently purchased seats aboard Russian spacecraft to get to and from the ISS before business magnate Elon Musk’s SpaceX came into play.
In May, Roscosmos announced upcoming flights to the ISS onboard a Soyuz spacecraft, which includes an expedition in October to shoot scenes for a science fiction movie starring Russian actress Yulia Peresild.
The first launch of a crew to ISS was onboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 2000, which marked the start of human presence on the orbiting laboratory. Schoffner says that for the Ax-2 mission there is a presented opportunity to test gene sequencing technology built by US biotechnology company, 10x Genomics. For decades, researchers from the company have been studying how cells react in space to apply single-cell genomics in neuroscience and immunology.
"Researchers have been wanting to have this capability on orbit," Shoffner said, according to CBS News. "They currently orbit and test samples and bring them down and then run them on 10x Genomics equipment on Earth. But the sample fidelity can shift between the launch and the recovery. So, researchers want this."
Axiom’s first mission to ISS, Ax-1, is planned aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and is scheduled to launch in 2022, sending three wealthy investors for 10 days.
The spacecraft for Ax-2 has not yet been announced and neither has the price, but it is assumed that it will be a SpaceX craft launch since it’s currently the only fully private commercial spaceflight. SpaceX seat purchases are reported to cost over $50 million.