Soon, an all-British expedition may send four UK astronauts into orbit.
The proposal is being developed by an American business that arranges trips to the International Space Station (ISS). To try to make it happen, Houston-based Axiom and the UK Space Agency have inked a memorandum of understanding.
Although the project is expected to cost at least £200 million, it is intended to be financed through commercial means. UK taxpayers would not make a contribution.
Axiom informed the BBC that talks were already in progress with businesses and organisations who were interested in offering funding.
Tim Peake was the last person from the United Kingdom to enter orbit when he was an astronaut for the European Space Agency (Esa) in 2015. “This is an exciting opportunity and actually unique. No-one has done a ‘national mission’, commercially, like this before. It’s a new model and would be paving the way for how we do space in the future,” he said.
There aren’t many details yet. Neither the crew nor the notion for how it would be picked has been decided upon. Furthermore, there is no set destination. As of right now, all Axiom-led missions have transported participating astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using capsules owned by businessman Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm.
However, the British mission can potentially be a risk-taker. That is to say, the crew would return to a splashdown on Earth after spending several days orbiting the planet in just their capsule, carrying out outreach and scientific research. If the mission’s goal was to visit the International Space Station, the US space agency, NASA, would insist on a number of requirements, one of which would be the addition of an experienced astronaut to the crew. This condition is met by very few holders of UK passports, Tim Peake being an apparent choice for commander.
Founded by a former NASA officer in charge of the International Space Station, Axiom has already completed two trips and has a third scheduled to launch in the New Year.
Rich people and government-funded astronauts who are not on the station’s normal crew rotation have had the opportunity to fly thanks to these early enterprises. However, the new space industry in low-Earth orbit needs to go beyond the pockets of billionaires and public subsidies if it is to be sustained. It must attract industries that have not historically participated in space exploration.
Tejpaul Bhatia, chief revenue officer of Axiom, praised the UK Space Agency (UKSA) for their proactive approach. The organisation has prioritised securing private funding for a surge of new firms. “The UK is in a very unique position right now and in a leadership position for this transition to the commercialisation of space,” he told BBC News.
Axiom may arrange the expedition on its own; it doesn’t require the support of the UKSA. But the initiative is further reassured by the agency’s support.
“It’s a really complex endeavour to plan a space mission, to make sure that the crew are well selected and well trained, and that everything of course is safe. We will have a core role in this, along with Esa where some of the training will be done,” according to UKSA CEO Paul Bate.
“There’s also the science we want to see done on the mission itself, and we have a lot of expertise in selecting microgravity experiments, looking at signs of aging for example. But what I really like about this approach is it’s got the commercial nature to it, which is at the heart of what the UK Space Agency does,” he further added.
It’s unclear exactly when an “Axiom-UK” mission might begin. Both the funding and the mission profile need to be properly drawn out. Furthermore, NASA only offers a few number of spots each year for commercial guests to the space station, even though it charges a hefty fee for the privilege, with “board and lodging” costing well over £100,000 per person every night.
When the seasoned orbiting laboratory is retired, Axiom will shortly start connecting modules to the ISS that will eventually uncouple as a distinct architecture to build a commercial station.
The company Thales Alenia Space, which constructed the majority of the livable sections of the existing space station, manufactures a large portion of the gear for this endeavour in Italy.