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U.S. launches new private astronaut mission to space station

LOS ANGELES, North America | Xinhua | SpaceX and Axiom Space launched the third private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, as part of NASA’s efforts to open access to space.

The mission, codenamed Axiom Mission 3 (Ax-3), is the first all-European commercial astronaut mission to the ISS, according to NASA.

The Dragon spacecraft carrying the four-member crew blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 4:49 p.m. Eastern Time (2149 GMT).

Later, SpaceX confirmed the main engine cutoff and stage separation of its Falcon 9 rocket. The first stage booster of the rocket has landed at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The four-member crew are commander Michael Lopez-Alegria of the United States and Spain, pilot Walter Villadei of the Italian Air Force, and the two mission specialists — Alper Gezeravci of Türkiye and European Space Agency project astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden.

The crew is now in orbit and on their way to the ISS, according to Axiom Space’s live broadcast.

The Dragon spacecraft will dock autonomously to the forward port of the station’s Harmony module as early as 4:19 a.m. Eastern Time (0919 GMT) Saturday, according to NASA.

Once docked, the Ax-3 astronauts will spend 14 days aboard the orbiting laboratory implementing a full mission comprised of microgravity research, technology demonstrations, and outreach engagements.

This mission marks a new era of opportunity for countries to join the international space community and access low-Earth orbit to advance exploration and research in microgravity, said Axiom Space.

Data collected on the ground before and after the mission as well as in flight will impact the understanding of human physiology on Earth and in orbit, as well as advance scientific understanding, harness opportunities for industrial advancements, and develop technologies for humanity’s progress, according to Axiom Space.

“During their time aboard the International Space Station, the Ax-3 astronauts will carry out more than 30 scientific experiments that will help advance research in low-Earth orbit,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“Together with our commercial partners, NASA is supporting a growing commercial space economy and the future of space technology,” he said.

The Ax-3 astronauts are expected to depart the space station on Feb. 3, pending weather, for a return to Earth and splashdown at a landing site off the coast of Florida.

It is the third private astronaut mission run by Axiom Space in collaboration with NASA. The first all-private mission to fly to the ISS, codenamed Ax-1, was launched on April 8, 2022, and returned to Earth on April 25 after spending 17 days on the ISS.

The second mission, Ax-2, was launched on May 21, 2023 and returned to Earth on May 30 after about eight days aboard the ISS. ■

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