A private astronaut is set to launch to the International Space Station on Thursday. But unlike previous such flights, none of the passengers are wealthy space tourists paying their own way into orbit.
Instead, three countries — Italy, Sweden and Turkey — are taking advantage of new commercial opportunities to send astronauts from government space programs to orbital outposts. For Turkey, it will be the country's first astronaut.
Houston's private space mission, Axiom Space, sends paying customers for a two-week stay aboard the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA opened a portion of the space station to visitors, a reversal from previous policies. (Russia has hosted a series of space tourists on the International Space Station since 2001.)
Here's what to know about Thursday's release.
When is the launch and how do I watch it?
Launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for Thursday at 4:49 p.m. ET from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was scheduled for Wednesday, but SpaceX decided to push it back a day. “The additional time allows teams to complete pre-launch testing and data analysis of the vehicle,” the company said.
Forecasts give a 60 percent chance of favorable weather at the launch site. If release is delayed, backup opportunities will be available on Friday.
About two hours before liftoff, the four astronauts were loaded and seated in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Soon, the crew sealed the vehicle's hatch, a key step for the launch. About 35 minutes before the scheduled liftoff, SpaceX began loading the rocket with propellants.
Who is on this plane?
Team members include Alper Gezeravci, a fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force; Walter Villadei, Colonel in the Italian Air Force; and Markus Vand, a fighter and test pilot who previously served in the Swedish Air Force. Their governments paid billions of dollars for each astronaut's trip.
Hoping to serve as an inspiration to future generations, Mr. Kesaravsi will be Turkey's first astronaut. “This space flight is not the goal of our journey,” he said during a news conference last week. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”
The pilot of the mission, Mr. Villadei has already been in space, but only for a few minutes. He was one of three members of the Italian Air Force who flew aboard a Virgin Galactic satellite in June last year, conducting a range of experiments in biomedicine, fluid dynamics and materials science.
In 2022, Mr. Wanted applied to become an astronaut with the European Space Agency, but was not one of the five selected as full-time career astronauts. But he was selected as one of the “reserve” astronauts, who remain on current jobs but are eligible for future missions.
When Axiom approached Swedish officials about seat availability on this private space flight, they agreed to purchase the ticket. ESA as a Project Astronaut Mr. Signed a one-year contract with Wand and provided on-the-job training.
The mission's commander is Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and currently the chief astronaut on Axiom. NASA requires that private space missions be led by a former NASA astronaut. Mr. Lopez-Alegria flew on three space shuttle missions, and spent seven months on the International Space Station from September 2006 to April 2007. He has commanded the Axiom private space mission since 2004.
When will they arrive at the space station?
If the mission launches on Thursday, it will arrive at the International Space Station at 5:15 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Do other countries also fly astronauts on commercial flights?
Saudi Arabia last year sent two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard the Axiom spacecraft. During their work, they conducted various scientific experiments.
Like Sweden's arrangement for Mr. Wandt, Poland also has an astronaut, another of ESA's reserve astronauts, Slavos Usnanski, lined up for a future Axiom flight. The UK Space Agency has also contracted Axiom to fly British astronauts into orbit.
The UAE bought one of its astronauts, Hazza Al-Mansouri, a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station in 2019. Axiom Space also arranged for the second Emirati astronaut, Sultan Alnyadi, to spend six months on the space station in 2023.