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An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space taxi docking with the International Space Station. (SpaceX / NASA Illustration)

Axiom Space says it’s signed a contract with SpaceX to fly three paying passengers and an Axiom-trained commander to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon spaceship as soon as the second half of next year.

If Axiom Space, SpaceX and NASA can stick to the schedule, that would qualify the 10-day trip as the first honest-to-goodness privately funded mission to the space station. Paying passengers have been traveling to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft since 2001, but those missions piggybacked on regular crew-rotation flights.

“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in a news release. “This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space – a first for a commercial entity. Procuring the transportation marks significant progress toward that goal, and we’re glad to be working with SpaceX in this effort.”

The flight would take advantage of a Crew Dragon craft that was developed as a space taxi for NASA’s use.

“Thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer.

Last year, NASA set up an arrangement that would allow for up to two private-astronaut missions per year.

Axiom would like to take maximum advantage of those opportunities. It already has a Space Act Agreement with NASA that would allow the company to send its customers to the space station, as “precursor missions” clearing the way for Axiom to launch its own space habitat. Axiom said further discussions with NASA are underway to establish the follow-up agreements necessary for its planned missions.

Suffredini should be well-placed to navigate those discussions: He was NASA’s manager for the space station program until he left the space agency in 2015 and joined Axiom.

The precise cost of the ride was not mentioned today, but in 2018, Axiom said it was targeting $55 million per seat as its price point.

Axiom would have to reimburse NASA for services on the station, potentially ranging from food, water and power to use of the orbital restrooms. NASA has estimated the cost at roughly $35,000 a night, but there’s a chance Axiom could supply its own provisions and logistics to reduce the charge.

Axiom said that it already has potential customers for the trip, but that the identity of the full crew would be announced at a later time.

“Being the first group to fly to ISS together under a commercial banner is worth commemorating as a unique identity and moment in history,  and we’d like them all to get their equal ‘moment in the sun,’ ” Axiom spokesman Beau Holder told GeekWire via email.

The itinerary for the 10-day trip provides for two days in transit and eight days aboard the space station. Axiom said the tour package will cover training, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, hardware and safety certifications, on-orbit operations and mission management.

Texas-based Axiom Space isn’t the only company working with SpaceX to plan space trips. Last month, Virginia-based Space Adventures said it struck its own agreement with SpaceX to have up to four people launched into a free-flying orbit that would range far above the space station, potentially as early as late 2021. That Crew Dragon trip wouldn’t include a rendezvous with the station itself, but it’s likely that NASA would play a supporting role nevertheless.

Nevada-based Bigelow Space Operations says it’s also working with SpaceX to offer trips to the space station at a per-seat cost of around $52 million. NASA’s per-night charge is presumably extra. “The devil is in the details,” billionaire founder Robert Bigelow said when the tentative plan was unveiled last year.

That aphorism could well apply to all the plans for future space travelers.

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