A Houston company with deep NASA experience announced plans Thursday to launch a company-trained commander and three during an unpiloted test fight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule last December before pressing ahead with either another unpiloted test or a crewed test flight.
In a departure from past practice, NASA will not own the Crew Dragon or Starliner capsules when testing is complete. Both companies are free to launch private, non-space station missions as well as flights to the NASA outpost that might include one or more space tourists or privately-funded researchers, assuming safety criteria are met.
Space Adventures, a company that brokered trips to the International Space Station for seven private citizens between 2001 and 2009, announced an agreement with SpaceX last month to launch up to four space tourists or other non professionals aboard the Crew Dragon capsule by mid 2022.
That crew will not visit the space station. Instead, the privately funded space tourists will enjoy views from a record-high orbit before returning to Earth. Space Adventures signed an agreement with Boeing in 2010 to offer unused Starliner seats to private citizens for visits to the space station, although no schedules have been announced.
The Axiom flight announced Thursday would be the first non-government piloted space flight to orbit the Earth.
“Since 2012, SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA and later this year, we will fly NASA astronauts for the first time,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
“Now, thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration.”