Axiom and SpaceX are disrupting Europe’s traditional pathway to space

AI SaaS

Image of a rocket clearing the tower during liftoff.
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches the Axiom-2 mission on May 21, 2023.

SpaceX

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) has a deal with Axiom Space to get more Europeans in orbit. But does the partnership benefit European taxpayers who fund the agency’s operations?

On Wednesday, January 17, the third privately funded mission by US commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space is set to lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Inside the Crew Dragon capsule will be a quartet of space travelers, including Swedish fighter pilot Marcus Wandt.

Wandt will be flying under the European Space Agency (ESA) flag, although he is not exactly an ESA astronaut. In the 2022 European astronaut recruitment round, Wandt didn’t make the final five of Europe’s “proper” astronaut class, who became ESA staff members and started their astronaut training in 2023. Instead, he was selected as a member of ESA’s first astronaut reserve pool, a novelty developed by ESA with an apparent goal of encouraging its member states to pay for national missions in addition to their regular contributions to ESA’s budget. Sweden was the first to jump at the opportunity in April last year and is paying for Wandt’s two-week space trip through a contract brokered by ESA as part of a Memorandum of Understanding the agency signed with the American commercial company Axiom Space in October 2023.

Ticket to ride

Wandt is the first but not the only reserve astronaut with his ticket to space while his seemingly more successful colleagues who made the proper astronaut corps are still in training. Poland, too, has signed up and expects to fly its reservist, Sławosz Uznański, on another Axiom mission later this year.

Compared to their overall investment in space activities, the price these countries pay to see their nationals float in microgravity is not negligible. At the November 2022 ESA ministerial council—the triennial member state summit that decides the agency’s budget for the following three-year period—Sweden pledged 317 million euros ($355 million).

According to a 2018 announcement, Axiom Space sells 10-day space trips for $55 million a seat. The overall cost of each mission is likely to be quite a bit higher. Last year, Hungary signed a contract directly with Axiom to send a Hungarian national to the International Space Station independently of ESA. Hungary discussed plans for a national mission back in 2022 and, at that time, estimated the project to cost about $100 million. Based on that estimate, Sweden may be easily paying an equivalent of its annual contribution into the ESA budget to get Wandt to space.

In addition to Wandt and Uznański, the ESA astronaut reserve pool includes nine other candidates, none of them officially employed by ESA. By filling this astronaut reserve pool, ESA seems to have created a market for Axiom Space, a move that might raise questions given the agency’s purpose is to promote the European space sector. In fact, the ESA’s founding Convention enshrines the principle of geo-return, which grants member states at least an 80 percent return on their contributions into ESA’s budget in the form of research and development contracts. Although the cost of the Axiom missions is paid through ESA, most of this money goes to the Texas-headquartered Axiom Space and its launch provider, SpaceX.

Secret contracts

ESA refused to disclose details of the arrangement between Axiom Space and Sweden, calling it “proprietary data as this is implemented through a confidential commercial contract.” The Swedish National Space Agency didn’t respond to Ars Technica’s request for comment.

Poland’s announcement of a national mission for Uznański arrived in August last year, accompanied by a jaw-dropping increase of the country’s contribution to ESA’s budget. At the 2022 ministerial council, Poland earmarked 197 million euros for the agency’s activities in the 2023 to 2025 period. In August, the Polish Space Agency more than doubled this contribution, committing an additional 295 million euros ($322 million). It is not clear how much of this money will go toward Uznański’s space trip.

In the months following the announcement of the astronaut reserve pool, Axiom Space began actively approaching home countries of the reservists with offers to fly those men and women to space, according to media in the Czech Republic, which has recently declined the offer.

In addition to Sweden and Poland, the UK also intends to use Axiom’s services and conduct a British-only mission that will be headed by semi-retired ESA astronaut Tim Peake. It will also include the UK’s Rosemary Coogan, newly named as one of ESA’s career astronauts, as well as reservist Meganne Christian and para-astronaut John McFall. Unlike the Swedish and Polish mission, the British mission will be funded by the private industry in the UK rather than by taxpayers, according to the BBC.

AI SaaS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *