Four astronauts who can trace their heritage to six sovereign nations, including the oldest person ever to command a mission and Türkiye’s first national space traveler, are targeting a sunset liftoff tomorrow from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for their two-week research expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). Houston, Texas-headquartered AxiomSpace, Inc.’s all-private Ax-3 mission for science, technology and educational outreach is scheduled to fly at 5:11 p.m. EST Wednesday, with a backup opportunity at 4:49 p.m. EST Thursday.
Leading Ax-3 is AxiomSpace Chief Astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria, a former U.S. astronaut of Spanish ancestry selected by NASA in March 1992 who went on to fly three Space Shuttle missions between October 1995 and December 2002, before commanding the 215-day Expedition 14 to the ISS between September 2006 and April 2007. At the time, it marked the longest single increment ever undertaken to the ISS and would not be broken until October 2015, just past the midpoint of the almost-year-long expedition of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko.
Retiring from NASA’s Astronaut Corps in March 2012, Lopez-Alegria served as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and joined AxiomSpace in 2017, initially leading its business development section, before becoming its Chief Astronaut. Even after his fourth and final spaceflight for NASA, he established himself as the United States’ second most flight-seasoned astronaut after Mike Foale and his position as America’s most experienced spacewalker, with 67 hours and 40 minutes across ten sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), still stands to this day and looks unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
In January 2021, Lopez-Alegria was named to command Ax-1, AxiomSpace’s first all-private mission to the ISS. That 17-day flight took place in April 2022 and saw Lopez-Alegria, U.S. entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canada’s Mark Pathy and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe perform dozens of experiments, technology demonstrations and educational outreach activities on the space station, alongside the incumbent Expedition 66 crew.
Aged 63 at the time of Ax-1—and now 65 as he prepares for tomorrow’s Ax-3 launch—Lopez-Alegria twice became the oldest person ever to command an orbital spacecraft, eclipsing Russia’s Pavel Vinogradov who turned 60 back in August 2013 during Expedition 35/36. He also stands as the third-oldest orbital space traveler of all time, behind his Ax-1 crewmate Larry Connor and “Original Seven” Project Mercury astronaut and later shuttle flyer, Sen. John Glenn.
With five prior flights and more than 275 days in space in his astronauting logbook, Lopez-Alegria becomes only the tenth human to reach a sixth career mission. He joins the ranks of such past luminaries as Gemini, Apollo and shuttle legend John Young, Hubble Space Telescope (HST) repairman and the only person to have flown all five Space Shuttle orbiters, Story Musgrave, and the second most flight-experienced space traveler of all time, Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko.
“L-A”, as he is affectionately known, the retired U.S. Navy captain also secures another record as the first person to fly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on two occasions. Having previously commanded Dragon Endeavour on Ax-1, this time around he will lead Dragon Freedom, making its third trek to the ISS after supporting Crew-4 between April and October of 2022 and AxiomSpace’s Ax-2 commercial flight last May by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, airshow pilot John Shoffner and Ali Al-Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi of Saudi Arabia, the latter of whom became the first Arab woman to voyage into space.
With Lopez-Alegria representing Spain and the United States, seated alongside him in the pilot’s couch aboard Dragon Freedom will be 49-year-old Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, who last June savored his first taste of space as a crewman aboard Virgin Galactic’s Galactic-01 flight which attained a peak altitude of 52.9 miles (85.1 kilometers). Having previously also trained in Russia’s Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, Villadei was selected in January 2022 to train for a future AxiomSpace mission.
In November 2022, it was reported that “an AxiomSpace astronaut”—subsequently confirmed to be Villadei—had been assigned to Virgin Galactic’s Galactic-01 flight to “prepare…for an upcoming trip to orbit, while conducting microgravity research to supplement the work that astronaut will do on the International Space Station”. When Ax-3 launches, Villadei will become the first Italian and the second non-American after Crew-7’s Andreas Mogensen of Denmark to pilot a U.S. orbital spacecraft.
Hints of the identities of Ax-3’s pair of mission specialists first entered the popular consciousness in the late summer of 2022 and the early spring of last year. In September 2022, AxiomSpace and the Republic of Türkiye signed agreements at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, France, to facilitate a flight opportunity for Türkiye’s first national space traveler.
Working with TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute, under the direction of the Turkish Space Agency, it was noted that Türkiye was “evaluating scientific experiments via an open solicitation for on-orbit research” and that “further discussion…is underway to finalize the timeline for the mission”. And last April, AxiomSpace and the Swedish National Space Agency (SNSA) signed “a letter of intent” to fly a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to the ISS on a future mission.
Ax-3 finally shifted gears from a “paper” flight to a real ISS flight in March of last year, when NASA and AxiomSpace signed a formalized order for the third Private Astronaut Mission (PAM). The mission was scheduled to occur no sooner than November 2023 with the four-person crew spending up to 14 days aboard the sprawling orbital complex.
Finally, last September the full Ax-3 crew complement was finalized. With NASA having mandated that PAM commanders should be previously flown NASA astronauts, Lopez-Alegria’s assignment to take the helm of Ax-3 proved unsurprising.
And with Villadei as pilot, the identities of the flight’s pair of mission specialists were identified as Alper Gezeravcı and Sweden’s Marcus Wandt, who would each set new records: the former as Türkiye’s first national space traveler and the latter a Swedish astronaut flying an ESA commercial mission for the first time. Forty-four-year-old Gezeravcı is an electronic engineer and experienced F-16 fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force, while 43-year-old Wandt—of Swedish-Norwegian ancestry—was a Swedish Air Force fighter pilot and experimental test pilot and head of flight operations for SAAB Aeronautics, prior to selection into ESA’s astronaut corps in November 2022.
In readiness for launch, Dragon Freedom arrived at the Pad 39A hangar for integration atop the four-times-flown B1080 Falcon 9 booster. The 230-foot-tall (70-meter) vehicle was elevated upright on Tuesday.
And this particular booster and Crew Dragon have seen prior service together. B1080’s maiden flight in May of last year rocketed Whitson, Shoffner, Al-Qarni and Barnawi into low-Earth orbit for their nine-day scientific research, technology and educational outreach mission to the ISS.
Since then, B1080 logged three further launches, delivering ESA’s Euclid deep-space observatory last July and a pair of batches of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites in August and October. Those opening four flights of B1080’s career terminated with a trio of offshore Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) landings and a single, on-point touchdown on solid ground at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1, with the booster attempting a second LZ-1 landing tomorrow.
Following liftoff at 5:11 p.m. EST Wednesday, Dragon Freedom will separate from the Falcon 9’s second stage at 12 minutes into the flight and open its nose cone to expose rendezvous and tracking sensors shortly thereafter. Lopez-Alegria, Villadei, Gezeravcı and Wandt will then settle down for a 36-hour rendezvous and phasing approach that will guide their ship to a docking at the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony node around 5:15 a.m. EST Friday.
Welcoming them for their two-week stay and more than 30 experiments and activities will be Expedition 70 Commander Andreas Mogensen of Denmark and his U.S. crewmates Loral O’Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli, Russia’s Oleg Kononenko, Konstantin Borisov and Nikolai Chub and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, all of whom have been aboard the station since last summer. The presence of Mogensen and Wandt marks the first occasion that a pair of Scandinavian astronauts have been in orbit together and their respective missions’ names—“Huginn” for Mogensen’s in-progress six-month ISS increment and “Muninn” for Wandt’s commercial visiting expedition—honor a pair of world-circling ravens from ancient Norse mythology.
Weather conditions for tomorrow’s sunset launch are predicted to be 95-percent favorable, with a slight chance of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule. “No significant launch weather concerns are expected with an increasing stratocumulus deck as winds veer onshore,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in a Tuesday update.
That picture is expected to deteriorate for a pair of backup launch opportunities later this week, with a 90-percent probability of acceptable weather on Thursday afternoon dropping to 75-percent-favorable on Friday. A weak inverted trough developing off Florida’s east coast later in the week is expected to introduce a higher risk of Cumulus Cloud Rule violations and “small chances” of showers.