SpaceX and Axiom Space are targeting January 18th, 2024 at 4:49 PM for the launch of their third mission to the International Space Station, Ax-3, carrying a historic all-European crew on a 14-day mission. With Axiom enabling missions for the continent without an established human spaceflight capability, this mission represents not only the establishment of a routine cadence for commercial missions to the station, but indicates a shift in the power dynamic of Europe’s ambitions.
Michael López-Alegría, a dual citizen of the United States and Spain, is the commander for Ax-3 and will be making his sixth trip to space. A veteran of NASA’s 1992 astronaut class, López-Alegría holds the record for longest cumulative EVA time for a US astronaut, 67 hours and 40 minutes across 10 EVAs. López-Alegría is the first astronaut to fly on SpaceX’s Dragon more than once. The former NASA astronaut previously commanded Ax-1, the first mission the company flew to the orbiting laboratory in 2022. He previously flew as a crew member on three Space Shuttle missions and served as a member of the long duration Expedition 14 crew via Soyuz TMA-9.
Crew Dragon Freedom’s pilot for Ax-3 is Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force and head of the Italian Air Force’s U.S. office overseeing commercial spaceflight. Having trained at Star City in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, he received his cosmonaut wings in 2012 in preparation for flight to the ISS. Colonel Villadei will be making his second flight onboard a U.S. spacecraft. He previously flew onboard the suborbital Virgin Galactic Unity 23/Galactic 01 mission in June, 2023.
Alper Gezeravcı will become the first Turkish astronaut to head to space. Having served in the Turkish Air Force for more than 21 years as an F-16 pilot, Gezeravcı was announced as a member of the Ax-3 crew by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in April 2023.
Marcus Wandt, representing Sweden within the European Space Agency, will be making his first trip to space onboard Ax-3, completing a short duration segment known as Muninn. This segment coincides with ISS Commander Andreas Mogensen’s Huginn segment, named for a pair of twin ravens in Norse mythology. In his selection for the Ax-3 mission, Wandt’s status was changed from “reserve astronaut” to “project astronaut,” becoming the first member of the larger 2022 class to fly. According to ESA: “Project Astronauts are hired as ESA staff on a fixed-term contract and have posts that are linked to a specific flight or project. These assignments can include missions of opportunity where ESA or its Member States want to send a European to space.” Wandt will be the second Swedish astronaut to fly to space, after Christer Fugelsang flew to ISS on STS-116 and STS-128.
Axiom Space represents a new path forward for Europe’s broader space ambitions, decoupling themselves from US or Russian-led human spaceflight projects in favor of commercial enterprise. By acting as a broker to purchase seats on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, Axiom can provide access to space for nations that may not have independent access. Such was the case on Ax-2, in which two Saudi astronauts flew for the Saudi Space Commission. Commercial missions may also enable further cooperation across new and developing partner nations, including nations such as the United Arab Emirates and even India. Flights such as these can act as a good litmus test for international cooperation, and development of multilateral relationships.
As commercialization of Low Earth Orbit continues, brokerage groups such as Axiom could enable greater opportunities for nations eager to get their own crews in orbit, free from the schedule and policy of a larger spaceflight power. However, it remains to be seen whether Axiom remains as a “tourist” broker, or act as a third party liaison for governments eager to get time onboard the world’s most prestigious laboratory.