- Axiom Space, a startup led in part by ex-NASA officials, is gearing up to fly the world’s first all-private mission to the International Space Station.
- Axiom employee Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, will command the Ax-1 mission.
- López-Alegría will fly with three private astronauts: Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe and two other citizens, who are rumored to be actor Tom Cruise and Doug Liman.
- Business Insider spoke to López-Alegría about preparing for his flight, what his crew members are like, Axiom’s planned private space station, and what he sees in the future of commercial spaceflight.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Private astronauts have rocketed into orbit for decades, but none has ever commanded a space mission, let alone piloted a commercial vehicle full of millionaire space tourists.
Michael López-Alegría may be the first in history, and as early as next year.
A former NASA astronaut who’s rocketed to space four times, López-Alegría is now the vice president of business development for Axiom Space. The startup has raised about $19 million in capital, according to PitchBook. Space News reported earlier this year that it was working to raise $100 million, though a PitchBook profile of Axiom suggests that deal is not yet complete.
Axiom’s team is a who’s-who of the human spaceflight industry. Its president and CEO is Mike Suffredini, NASA’s former ISS program manager. Also on staff is Derek Hassmann, a former ISS flight director for NASA, Brent Jett, a former deputy program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, former NASA medical officer and flight surgeon Smith Johnston, and more. Even former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden is a consultant.
López-Alegría’s mission is scheduled to launch to orbit no earlier than late 2021 aboard SpaceX’s freshly human-certified Crew Dragon spaceship, which has now flown two astronaut crews to the International Space Station.
His three crewmates are anything but typical: One is Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli fighter pilot-cum-millionaire businessman. The others are likely to be actor Tom Cruise and film director Doug Liman, though Axiom has not yet made an announcement.
If the roughly 10-day mission goes as planned, it’d be the first all-private orbital space mission. It’s not just for space tourism kicks, either: For the first time in NASA history, the agency is rolling out the carpet to the ISS for commercial access.
Many space-industry players also see Axiom’s flight not only as a major milestone in the company’s growth, but also a harbinger of a robust commercial economy in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to come. In addition to regular private spaceflights, Axiom is working to build, test, fly, and eventually assemble pieces of the first private space station, AxStation, which would replace the ISS. To that end, NASA in January awarded Axiom a $140 million contract to build a new module and dock it to the ISS.
To get a sense of how López-Alegría is preparing for his historic mission, we spoke in November (just before Stibbe was announced as a crew member by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin). The conversation that follows is edited for length and clarity.
Business Insider: How did you fall into Axiom’s orbit?
Michael López-Alegría: Like a lot of things, it’s about relationships. I’ve known Mike Suffredini for many years, when he was a program manager and I was first crew member, and then later running point on the NASA crew interface with the ISS program.
When he came up with this idea and formed what was then an LLC, he gave me a call and explained to me the project. At that point, I had nothing to do with flying in space. Being a fan of the ISS and what it’s all about, I think most people should be concerned that, one day, it will go away. And if we’re not ready, there’ll be a gap. Axiom is here to fill the gap, and I’m happy to be part of that effort.
Tell me about the moment you realized you were going to fly again — when you were in a business-focused role, and you emerged as the choice to accompany folks to orbit.
This is not something I had to have my arm twisted for, and it evolved over time. We were talking to early potential customers and it became pretty clear that they would only consider flying if there were somebody at the helm who’d done it before. For me the realization didn’t set in overnight. It took a little bit of time. But since I was the one trying to get those customers, I was aware of it pretty early on. At some point it went from being a notion to a mandate. And I raised my hand.
You’re one of the most experienced astronauts alive today. What’s in it for you for what’d be your fifth mission?
Any red-blooded NASA astronaut would like to do this, particularly in view of having been separated from that experience over the years. When you move on to other roles, you become aware that it isn’t as normal as one who lives and breathes that everyday thinks it is. And as you get more and more separated from that, it becomes more and more untouchable to you — you just have pictures and stories and sentiments. It’s almost a dreamlike existence; although you were there, you can’t necessarily, or in general, ever go back there.
Tell me about getting back there. What has your training regimen been like and working with SpaceX? What kind of things are you doing to prepare for this flight?
This is all very fresh. We just announced that we have the entire crew assembled. So for now, the interface with SpaceX has all been about planning for training. We want our private astronaut missions to dedicate about the last four months before launch to training, and we’re quite a ways from that yet.
I’ll start a little bit earlier because there’s some things to learn, as the commander, that the entire crew doesn’t have to learn. I’m very much looking forward to that because this is a brand-new vehicle. I was lucky enough to fly on the Soyuz, which started its operations in the 1960s. To go from that to this? It’s going to be interesting — maybe like going from a biplane to a supersonic jet. At same time, it’s quite automated. But NASA was very insistent that there be manual capabilities, so I’ll be getting trained on those as well.
How are you feeling about the timeframe? There’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to do before flight.
We have plenty of time, but I’ve started to think more about physical training. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in that regime, and I’m not getting any younger. But I feel very much up to the challenge and I’m excited by it.
What is your physical routine or regimen?
I’ve stayed fairly active throughout my career. But now it’s a little bit more concentrated on flexibility. I don’t really think endurance is terribly important. I need to run a marathon, but I need to be fit and strong. It’s kind of an across-the-board approach. I’ve just recently started doing something routinely with a trainer, so I’ll be ready.
You can’t reveal who the private astronauts are, but what can you tell us about them? What are they like? Are they nervous? Are you looking forward to working with them?
I’ve only ever met one of them in person, just due to the COVID circumstances, and we want to change that as soon as possible. But I feel like I’ve gotten to know them pretty well and ironically, even though they’re private astronauts, these three particular individuals feel like people who might have been selected as astronauts before — meaning I feel like they all have the right stuff.
My job is commander’s is to try to identify everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, including my own, and build the strongest team possible by using those that knowledge intelligently. I have very high confidence that this crew will not just succeed but exceed NASA’s expectations. You can imagine they’re very excited, and this is very new for all of them. It’s going to be a real adventure.
What would you tell somebody who’s new to spaceflight? What do you try to impart in them?
It’s an interesting needle that I have to thread. On the one hand, I am a firm believer that human spaceflight is possible for a vast majority of the population. You don’t have to be Superman, you don’t have to be Einstein, you don’t have to be Da Vinci. You just have to be open-minded and willing to learn. So I want them to be confident.
On the other hand, I really want this crew — who’s setting the bar for commercial human spaceflight forever, if you really think about it — to be as good as we possibly can. So I want them to be professional, I want them to be prepared, I want them to be punctual, I want them to show up and be ready. So I have to play both good cop and bad cop with them. I think the biggest message is we’re a family as a crew: We really have to work together as a team, we’ve got to learn how to communicate, and we’ve got to stick up for each other. I think we’re on the road to success already.
What does bad-cop Michael look like?
I want them to show up and be really on top of their game, whether that means they studied the system the night before, or they had a good night’s sleep because they have to do something physical. Whatever the challenge is, I want to be the drill sergeant. At the same time, I want to be the den mother and coddle them, and be encouraging to them. So it’s a little bit of playing both. But again, they’re very bright, accomplished people, so I don’t really think that’s going to be too much of a challenge.
You’ve enjoyed some extreme success in your life. For those of us who may not fly to orbit anytime soon, what advice would you share on how to be successful?
It’s the same thing I tell kids, to be honest with you. It’s really all about following your dream and your passion. People ask a lot, “What do I have to study to become an astronaut?” There is no astronaut curriculum. You just go do something that you’re good at, and do well at it, and that’s how you’ll stand out. Pursue whatever passion you have. It’s not flying in space for everybody, but it is for these private astronaut customers.
Five years ago, if asked if they’d ever fly to space, they’d say no — and look where they are now. But I fully acknowledge this is a very reduced demographic that can, at least today, do the human spaceflight thing — at least the orbital human spaceflight thing. I do think that we will see the prices for launch come down, just like we saw prices to fly on airplanes come down in the 1920s and 1930s. Now people get on an airplane to go to birthday party without thinking about it. So follow your heart.
The first private astronauts didn’t have it easy with NASA, in the early 2000s — the agency tried to prevent some from going to the ISS. What was your sense of this at the time, and how are you feeling about the private-astronaut endeavor now?
When they were proposing Dennis Tito [the first private astronaut] to fly, there was a lot of heel dragging going on at NASA. Ultimately, they didn’t get their wish. They did not want him to fly, but the Russians sort of insisted and said, “You can’t stop us.” And here we are, 20 years later, doing the same thing — only this time, it’s NASA is doing the advocating.
People at NASA started realizing that the ISS was a finite resource, and that in order to have a successor, we needed to start sowing the seeds of an economy in low-Earth orbit. So they began to open their arms more and more to commercial ideas. From the the blue suit-wearing [i.e. NASA astronaut] crowd, I can tell you that I wasn’t very thrilled I was going to fly with a private astronaut back in 2006, and I actually flew home with another private astronaut. I wasn’t too excited about it. But my experience with the first one — Anousheh Ansari — really changed my outlook. In fact, that’s really why I got into commercial space, because of that experience.
People tend to not like what they don’t understand. And people that have wanted and dreamed and and worked hard to become professional astronauts at NASA their whole life? It’s possible that they don’t understand, and until they do, I think it’s logical for them to be sort of skeptical about it. That’s another part of my job: I know a lot of those folks, since I haven’t been gone from the office that long. It’s my job to try to integrate our crew with them and get people to know each other realize that we are people just like they are, and are actually quite similar in a lot of ways — certainly we share the passion of human spaceflight. It’ll take some time, but I think the opinion and the actions by NASA will become more and more inviting to this concept of commercial human spaceflight.
You’re an instrumental part of the first private mission: You’re the leader for it. How does that responsibility weigh on you?
It is something that I think about. It’s important to me for our crew to be respected. But I realize that’s an uphill climb at first; we’re starting off at a deficit. That is part of the reason I don’t want to give anybody any excuses to not like us. Or if they don’t like us, it’s not because we’re not performant or we’re not ready, or we’re not capable, or not good operators in the vehicle — it’s for some other reason that I think can be overcome with socialization, and explanation, and just being good ambassadors.
When we go to ISS, there’s no doubt we will be guests of the ISS crew, and we will treat them with respect, we will treat their home with respect. I think that’s how you get them to be more welcoming and open. I don’t know that it’ll be a super uphill climb, but I’m going to assume that it is until I see otherwise.
Axiom is trying to get a private space station built. But what does that future look like? How often are spaceflights? What kind of stuff is happening? And where do you see yourself in all that?
In the next few years, you’ll see us flying about two flights a year. Some of those will be private astronauts like this one, others professional astronauts. And this is an important distinction: We call people who are self-funded private astronauts, and people who are generally funded by other countries professional astronauts. NASA calls us all private astronauts.
But we plan to have a flight of what we call professional astronauts, or folks who are selected by other countries that are trained by us to the same standards, at the same facilities, and by the same people that train NASA astronauts. And then they would fly not a 10 day mission, but a 30-day, or 60-day, or even longer mission. So you’ll see some variation of a total of two of those per year.
In 2024, we attach our first module to the front of the ISS, followed by two more at six-month intervals. Five years from now, we’ll be flying not to the ISS anymore, but to the Axiom segments of the ISS. Ten years from now, we’ll be separated from the ISS. And I would not be surprised to see another commercial platform out there. After all, we want this to be a full-blown economy, not a monopoly. Competition is good for everybody. And 15 or 20 years from now, I hope that we see a robust and growing, full-blown economy in low-Earth orbit with government customers, but just as one of many customers of one or more commercial platforms.
The ISS, as you noted, won’t last forever. What do you think should happen to it and when?
There’s no question it has to be deorbited. We can’t just let it decay naturally, because if it comes in uncontrolled, it has a very good chance to get hurt somebody. We had that scare with the Mir [space station], and we got lucky. This is a much, much bigger vehicle and big pieces are going to survive to the ground. If that’s not done carefully, it’s going to be a bad day.
So, that’s what has to happen when we have proven, commercially viable successor. That means NASA and the other four space agencies can transition what they’re doing to a new platform owner and get rid of the ISS. It costs NASA $3.5 billion a year, not to mention what the other agencies are providing. They’d like to spend some of that money on deeper-space exploration, with the Artemis program or whatever the next administration decides. If they can rent a room in a hotel rather than owning the hotel, it’s going to be less expensive for them, and they can continue to have the same benefits that they’re reaping now at a fraction of the cost. That just makes good economic sense.
Soichi Noguchi told me that he is speaking to Yusaku Maezawa, the fashion billionaire, about doing a trip around the moon in SpaceX’s Starship. Have you been approached by Maezawa about this?
I was introduced to him, but not for the purposes that you described. But I’ve met him and I know that he’s extraordinarily passionate about this — it’s obvious by how much of his resources he’s willing to commit to it.
I’ve learned you don’t bet against Elon. You can bet against this timetable, but probably not whether he’ll do it. So if it works — again, I think commercial human spaceflight benefits when there are more options — that certainly provides a different kind of experience at a different price point than Falcon 9 or CST 100. Why not have another mode of transportation? I’m all for it.
How much do you think having access to Starship would accelerate Axiom’s plans?
I don’t know enough about that platform. I’ve seen renderings, probably like you, but it seems so big that it almost doesn’t need an overall platform to go? I don’t know how long it can stay in orbit, but it seems to me to be a vehicle that’s really not designed to take people from the surface to LEO, but rather to beyond-LEO destinations, whether it’s circling or eventually landing on the moon.
What Starship might do is help bring prices down on what I’ll call the conventional launchers — like the Crew Dragon-Falcon 9 and the CST 100-Vulcan systems. So that that will be great for us, right? The majority of our costs are sunk in the launch, and having those things come down would be fantastic.
Anything you’d like to leave us with?
The events of the coming year are going to be exciting, and we’re just getting started. The first steps are the hardest to take, but I feel like we’re safely away from the starting gate now, starting to pick up our stride, and it’s going to be it’s going to be a nice run.