Two former International Space Station (ISS) commanders, with a combined 2.5 years’ worth of space-time and 20 sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) between them, have been named to begin dedicated training for the first-ever private crew in history to visit the sprawling orbital outpost.
Targeting a launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, no sooner than January 2022, four-time shuttle and ISS veteran Mike Lopez-Alegria will lead a crew of three investors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists as Houston, Texas-based AxiomSpace, Inc., executes its first crewed voyage to the space station. Backing them up is a team that includes three-time ISS veteran Peggy Whitson, incumbent record-holder for the greatest amount of time ever spent in space by a woman and the highest number of female EVA-hours.
“Looking forward to working with you again, Peg!” tweeted Lopez-Alegria. He and Whitson trained together as prime and backup commanders, respectively, for Expedition 14 in 2006. The pair had also flown together in late 2002; she as an ISS resident on Expedition 5, he as lead spacewalker on STS-113, the final shuttle mission before the loss of Columbia. Added Whitson: “Not the first time I have backed up @CommanderMLA. The next best thing to flying in space is training for it. Looking forward to the commercial evolution.”
Whilst Lopez-Alegria’s place in command of this historic flight comes as no surprise, the absence of movie star Tom Cruise and film producer Doug Liman—both rumored to be in the running to draw seats on the mission, designated “Ax-1”—is a notable anomaly. It recently became apparent that their flight has been delayed a year or two.
However, one additional crew member whose identity was known in connection with Ax-1 is former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, a Haifa-born impact investor and philanthropist. Stibbe flew A-4 Skyhawk, F-4 Phantom II and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets as an Israeli Air Force fighter pilot and participated in the 1982 Lebanon War. Whilst assigned to Ramat David Air Base, his commanding officer was Colonel Ilan Ramon, who went on to became Israel’s first man in space and later perished aboard shuttle Columbia in February 2003.
Following his departure from active military service, Stibbe was a reservist until 2012, attaining the rank of colonel, and more recently served as a combat pilot instructor at the Israel Air Force Academy. In civilian life, he has been involved in the development of cellular and satellite communications infrastructure, agricultural projects and youth villages in developing nations.
More than a decade ago, Stibbe established his own firm to invest in enterprises to improve the economic, personal and social wellbeing of low-and-middle-income communities and is a member of the World Economic Forum. His place on the Ax-1 crew was confirmed last November.
Stibbe will fly as one of two “mission specialists” on Ax-1, indicating a carryover of the same crew-position nomenclature from Commercial Crew Program missions to private AxiomSpace flights. During his time aboard the ISS, as Israel’s second national astronaut, he will reportedly conduct educational activities and scientific experiments on behalf of Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs. Much of this work is being co-ordinated by the Ramon Foundation and the Israeli Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Joining Stibbe as the second Ax-1 mission specialist is Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, chairman and chief executive officer of Montreal-based Mavrik Corp., whose website describes itself as “a family office with a broad range of investment and financing activities across several asset classes”. Before founding Mavrik, he was president and chief executive officer of Fednav International Ltd., a dry bulk shipping company, and previously worked in advertising in Toronto.
When Pathy launches next year, he will become the 11th Canadian astronaut, tracing an almost-four-decade lineage from Marc Garneau, the first of his countrymen to slip the bonds of Earth, to the most recent Maple Leaf-wearing astronaut, David Saint-Jacques. Specific focuses for Pathy’s mission include health-related research projects, developed in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Montreal Children’s Hospital.
Rounding out the three millionaire crewmen—each of whom reportedly paid in excess of $55 million for their respective seats aboard Ax-1—is Larry Connor, who will serve alongside Lopez-Alegria as Crew Dragon’s pilot. In doing so, the New York-born entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor becomes the first private citizen to pilot a crewed orbital space vehicle.
Aged 71 by the time Ax-1 launches early next year, Connor looks set to become the second-oldest human ever to voyage into orbit, after STS-95’s John Glenn, more than two decades ago. A real estate investor, his firm The Connor Group grew from $100 million in assets to $3.3 billion with luxury apartment communities in more than a dozen markets.
“This collection of pioneers—the first space crew of its kind—represents a defining moment in humanity’s eternal pursuit of exploration and progress,” said Lopez-Alegria. “I know from firsthand experience that what humans encounter in space is profound and propels them to make more meaningful contributions on returning to Earth. And as much as any astronaut who has come before them, the members of this crew have accomplished the sorts of things in life that equip them to accept that responsibility, act on that revelation, and make a truly global impact.
“I look forward to leading this crew and to their next meaningful and productive contributions to the human story, both on orbit and back home.”
And by definition, former U.S. Navy captain Lopez-Alegria—who served two decades as a NASA astronaut between March 1992 and his retirement in March 2012—becomes the first person to command both a civil and a commercial orbital flight. He served as a mission specialist aboard shuttle Columbia on STS-73 in the fall of 1995, then went on to log five sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on STS-92 and STS-113 and rounded out his career by commanding Expedition 14 between September 2006 and April 2007.
During his most recent mission, Lopez-Alegria performed another five EVAs and established personal records for the longest single U.S. human spaceflight (at 215 days) and the greatest number of spacewalking hours by any U.S. astronaut (67 hours and 40 minutes). Although the first of these records has since been eclipsed by One-Year crewman Scott Kelly, the second endures to this day. After his departure from NASA, in 2017 Lopez-Alegria joined AxiomSpace, Inc., as its vice president for business development.
“We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I’m glad to say we’ve done that with this group,” said AxiomSpace president and chief executive officer Michael Suffredini, who previously served until 2015 as NASA’s ISS program manager. “This is just the first of several Axiom Space crews whose private missions to the International Space Station will truly inaugurate an expansive future for humans in space and make a meaningful difference in the world when they return home.”
Backing up the Ax-1 crew in the commander’s position is none other than former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, a veteran of three long-duration ISS increments, during which she became the first woman to command the space station and the oldest female spacewalker in history.
With more than 665 cumulative days in orbit, Whitson sits in ninth place on the world list of most experienced spacefarers and is the No. 1 most seasoned U.S. astronaut. She also holds the greatest number of female EVA-hours, having spent more than 60 hours outside the station on ten spacewalks. Serving alongside Whitson as Ax-1 backup is U.S. entrepreneur, air show pilot and racing car driver John Shoffner.
Interviewed by the Washington Post, Lopez-Alegria—despite his long-standing experience as a “real” astronaut—was philosophical about the need for the Ax-1 crew to be as prepared as possible for their mission.
“There will definitely be some resistance,” he said of the possible attitude of the resident ISS crew of the arrival of this first private group of space travelers. “I think it’s our job to win them over. We can do that certainly by being as prepared and expert as possible. And so my goal is to get those guys to the point where no stone is unturned. And when they get on-board station, the crews are pleased. Maybe pleasantly.”