A private astronaut mission is scheduled to launch on Thursday to the International Space Station. But unlike on earlier such flights, none of the passengers are wealthy space tourists paying their own way to orbit.
Instead, three nations — Italy, Sweden and Turkey — are taking advantage of new commercial possibilities to send astronauts from government space programs to the orbital outpost. For Turkey, it will be the country’s first astronaut.
The private astronaut mission is the third for Axiom Space of Houston, which has been sending paying customers for two-week stays at the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA opened up its part of the space station to visitors, a reversal from earlier policies. (Russia has hosted a series of space tourists on the International Space Station since 2001.)
Here’s what to know about Thursday’s launch.
When is the launch and how can I watch it?
The launch, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is scheduled for 4:49 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch had been scheduled for Wednesday, but SpaceX decided to push it back one day. “The additional time allows teams to complete prelaunch checkouts and data analysis on the vehicle,” the company said.
Forecasts give an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions at the launchpad. If the launch is delayed, backup opportunities are available on Friday.
Axiom and SpaceX will stream coverage of the launch starting about two hours in advance. NASA Television will join the coverage at 3:45 p.m.
Who is on this flight?
The crew members include Alper Gezeravci, a fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force; Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force; and Marcus Wandt, a fighter and test pilot who formerly served in the Swedish Air Force. Their governments have paid tens of millions of dollars for each astronaut’s trip.
Mr. Gezeravci will be Turkey’s first astronaut, hoping to serve as an inspiration for future generations. “This spaceflight is not a destination of our journey,” he said during a news conference last week. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”
Mr. Villadei of Italy, the mission’s pilot, has already been to space, but just for a few minutes. He was one of three Italian Air Force members who flew on a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in June last year, conducting several experiments in biomedicine, fluid dynamics and material sciences.
In 2022, Mr. Wandt applied to become an astronaut at the European Space Agency, but was not one of the five people chosen to be full-time career astronauts. But he was selected as one of the “reserve” astronauts, who remain at their current jobs but who are eligible for future missions.
When Axiom approached Swedish officials about a seat available on this private astronaut mission, they agreed to buy the ticket. ESA signed a one-year contract with Mr. Wandt as a project astronaut and provided training for the mission.
Serving as the mission’s commander is Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and now chief astronaut at Axiom. NASA is requiring that private astronaut missions be led by a former NASA astronaut. Mr. López-Alegría flew on three space shuttle missions and also spent seven months on the International Space Station from September 2006 to April 2007. He also commanded the first Axiom private astronaut mission in 2004.
When will they arrive at the space station?
If the mission launches on Thursday, it will arrive at the International Space Station on Saturday at 5:15 a.m. Eastern time.
Are other nations also flying astronauts on commercial flights?
Saudi Arabia flew two astronauts to the International Space Station on the previous Axiom flight last year. During their mission, they conducted a variety of scientific experiments.
Similar to Sweden’s arrangement for Mr. Wandt, Poland has an astronaut, Slawosz Uznanski, who is another of ESA’s reserve astronauts, lined up for a future Axiom flight. The United Kingdom Space Agency has also signed an agreement with Axiom to fly British astronauts to orbit.
The United Arab Emirates purchased a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station in 2019 for one of its astronauts, Hazzaa Al-Mansoori. Axiom Space arranged a six-month stay on the space station for a second Emirati astronaut, Sultan Alneyadi, in 2023.