Civilian crew docks safely on International Space Station after paying ‘$55 million each’ to visit

The first-ever civilian team launched to the International Space Station (ISS) have arrived safely to begin a week-long stay, having each paid $55 million for the trip.

The four-man crew, comprised of three paying civilians and a retired astronaut representing Houston start-up company Axiom Space Inc, came aboard on Saturday, 21 hours after lifting off from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center, riding atop a SpaceX-launched Falcon 9 rocket.

Retired Spanish-born Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company’s vice president for business development, led the mission.

“It was a hell of a ride,” he said on reaching the station.

Lopez Garcia was accompanied by three crewmates: Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator in his 70s, Mark Pathy, a 52-year-old Canadian businessman and philanthropist, and Eytan Stibbe, a 64-year-old investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot.

The three men each paid a reported $55 million to travel to the station and for accommodation, meals included.

They joined the existing ISS occupants of seven regular, government-paid space station crew members – three American astronauts, a German astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts.

A technical glitch disrupted a video feed used to monitor the crew’s capsule, forcing it to hold its position 20 meters away from the station for about 45 minutes while it was fixed.

It eventually docked with the ISS at around 1.30pm UK time, as the two vehicles passed approximately 250 miles above the central Atlantic Ocean.

The new arrivals brought with them two dozen science and biomedical experiments to conduct aboard ISS, including research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and ageing, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity.

The mission, a collaboration among Axiom, Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX and Nasa, has been touted by all three as a major step in the expansion of space-based commercial activities, collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy.

As they docked, Connor, Stibbe, and Pathy were awarded pins from the Association of Space Explorers.

“There’s a tradition when you pass a certain boundary you become an astronaut. That happened to these three gentlemen for the first time yesterday. Now I’d like to note it officially,” López-Alegría explained.

“When I pin these on – I think the numbers are 582, 583, and 584 for Larry, Eytan, and Mark -I hope they will wear these with the pride they deserve.”

Nasa officials say the trend will help the US space agency focus more of its resources on big-science exploration, including its Artemis program to send humans back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.

While the space station has hosted civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission marks the first all-commercial team of astronauts sent to ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting research laboratory.

Axiom has plans to one day launch its own space station – which would be the world’s first commercial space station. 

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