Quirks & Quarks

Does a Canadian millionaire's private flight to the space station mark a new era in space travel?

Bob McDonald's blog: Mark Pathy paid $55M for his ticket to the publicly funded space station. In the future, space tourists may be visiting a private space station.

Bob McDonald's blog: A private rocket flight, sponsored by a company planning a private space station

The Axiom Mission 1 crew, including Canadian Businessman Mark Pathy (second from right) take part in a zero-G training flight. (Axiom Space)

Canadian businessman Mark Pathy will be part of the crew of the first fully private mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This marks another milestone in the privatization of space. 

The flight, called Axiom Mission 1, will bring four passengers to the ISS where they will spend nine days conducting an assortment of experiments. 

The mission is being operated by a company called Axiom Space, though the ride is being provided by SpaceX, with a Dragon crew capsule atop their Falcon 9 booster. Previous private space tourist trips to the ISS had involved Russian Soyuz vehicles.

Both the capsule and booster have been in space before, as SpaceX continues to demonstrate the reusability of their technology which has lowered the cost of spaceflight dramatically. 

A SpaceX Falcon rocket and Crew Dragon capsule will carry the Axiom mission astronauts to the International Space Station. (Axiom Spacae/SpaceX)

Once on orbit, Pathy will conduct several experiments in association with the Montreal Children's Hospital, six Canadian universities and the Canadian Geographic Society. 

He will study sleep deprivation, chronic pain and visual impairment associated with spaceflight, and test a new technology called holoportation, which uses virtual reality for communication. Pathy and a colleague at mission control on the ground will us VR headsets to share their experiences through telepresence. He will also be participating in surveys of Earth from space.

Axiom Space has big plans for the future, including what could be the first privately owned space station. Beginning in 2024, they hope to launch a series of four modules that will be attached to the ISS. Plans include two hubs with docking ports where other modules can be attached, a laboratory, and a power and life support module. 

An illustration of Axiom Space's planned modules which will attach to the International Space Station, then remain in orbit when the ISS is retired and de-orbited. (Axiom Space)

The long-term objective is that when the ISS comes to the end of its working life, sometime around 2030, Axiom's modules will separate and remain in space. The ISS will be driven into the atmosphere where it will burn up over the South Pacific ocean. Axiom's modules will then form the core of a new, privately run, orbital outpost.

To the moon?

On the company's website, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini referred to Axiom Mission 1 as "kicking off this civilizational leap," adding that it's the "true beginning of making space's potential for meaningful discovery available to private citizens and organizations for the first time."

It's not exactly likely to be available to most private citizens or organizations, though. Mark Pathy and his fellow passengers are reportedly paying $55 million US ($69.2 million Cdn) for their tickets.

But it's hard to argue that this isn't a significant moment of transition from state-sponsored space flight to private enterprise – a transition partly facilitated by cost.

As the Axiom mission prepares to launch, a symbol of the old model sits on a nearby launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS is the most powerful ever built. 

This infographic shows the NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) compared to Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon, as well as to the space shuttle. (NASA)

This massive machine is at the heart of NASA's Artemis program to return to the moon. But it is also years behind schedule and over budget. Each launch is expected to cost $4.1 billion US (over $5.1 billion Cdn) and the entire rocket system, which is largely based on old space shuttle technology, is not reusable. 

Compare that to the roughly $152 million US ($191 million Cdn) that a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch costs. That rocket has less than a third of the payload capacity, but you could launch 26 of them for what one SLS launch is going to cost.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center. (Thom Baur/Reuters)

And SpaceX, of course, is developing a new rocket called the Starship which could rival SLS. It too is meant to be reusable, with an eye on the Moon and Mars. 

The era of private spaceflight is definitely taking off and doing it in a big way. And at least with Pathy on board, Canada is part of it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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