On January 18th, 2024 at 4:49 PM, SpaceX and Axiom Space launched 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.
Following a recycle on Wednesday, January 17th, the crew departed from SpaceX’s Hangar X facility approximately 4 and a half hours prior to launch, with the crew being transported out to the pad by SpaceX’s fleet of Tesla Model Xs. The crew was assisted into their capsule, Crew Dragon Freedom, by the SpaceX pad support team, before sealing the hatches and evacuating the facility for the final launch countdown. Freedom is making its third flight to the International Space Station, having supported NASA’s Crew-4 and Axiom Mission 2.
Following liftoff, Freedom and Falcon 9 Booster 1080.5 climbed away from the pad at Historic Launch Complex 39A, entering the proper attitude for the climb. Following a successful first stage burn, Booster 1085 conducted a boost back to return to the launch site, shaking the Space Coast with sonic booms as it touched down at LZ-1. Docking of Crew Dragon Freedom to the International Space Station is scheduled for 4:19 AM on January 20, 2024.
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 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.
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.
With the crew of Ax-3 now on their way to the International Space Station to engage with the Expedition 70 crew in scientific research, nations from all of the world may begin to take note of the incredible power of an affordable launch option, something that may revolutionize the ways in which people of Planet Earth access space.