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Axiom-3 launches on SpaceX to ISS with all-European citizen crew

January 18, 2024

— The first spaceflight to be crewed entirely by European citizens is now on its way to the International Space Station having launched on a private mission aboard a U.S. commercial spacecraft.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Spain, lifted off as the commander of Axiom Space's Axiom-3 (Ax-3) crew on Thursday (Jan. 18), flying aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon "Freedom" with pilot Walter Villadei of Italy and mission specialists Alper Gezeravci of Türkiye and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden.

The four crewmates left Earth on a Falcon 9 rocket from Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:49 p.m. EST (1949 GMT). They are set to dock to the space station at 5:15 a.m. EST (1015 GMT) on Saturday to begin two weeks of science research, technology demonstrations and educational outreach.

Upon arriving in orbit, the Ax-3 astronauts' "fifth crew member" began to float. "GiGi," a Build-A-Bear doll clad in a miniature version of Axiom Space's next-generation lunar spacesuit, served as the mission's zero-g indicator, a role it first took on aboard Ax-2 in 2023.

"The [Ax-3 mission] is a remarkable increase in the amount of collaboration between us and European countries and really positions them at the forefront of this commercial human spaceflight enterprise," said Lopez-Alegria, Axiom's chief astronaut, during a pre-launch media roundtable. "Ax-3 represents Axiom's efforts to increase the possibilities for governments, private researchers, countries, academic institutions and other organizations to access the unique microgravity environment in low Earth orbit."

Ax-3 mission: launch. Click to enlarge video in a new pop-up window. (Axiom Space)

Once aboard the ISS, the Ax-3 crew will temporarily increase the space station's residency to 11 people. They will share the orbiting laboratory with the Expedition 70 crew, including commander Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub of Roscosmos, Loral O'Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli of NASA, Andreas ("Andy") Mogensen of ESA and Satoshi Furukawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Ax-3 is Lopez-Alegria's sixth flight into space and fifth visit to the International Space Station, including commanding Axiom's Ax-1 crew in 2022. NASA requires an ISS-experienced, former U.S. astronaut to accompany all private crews flying to the station, hence Lopez-Alegria's inclusion on the Ax-3 mission.

With this launch, Lopez-Alegria has become the first person to fly on Dragon more than once out of the 41 crewmembers who have flown on the spacecraft to date.

Villadei is a colonel in the Italian Air Force. He previously trained to fly on Russia's Soyuz and, in 2021, launched on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo completing a suborbital flight. As part of the Unity 23 crew, Villadei tended to science payloads during the microgravity phase of the flight.

He is now the eighth Italian astronaut to enter Earth orbit.

"The Virgin Galactic flight was an amazing experience," said Villadei. "It was very useful to me as a initial test flight, where all my prior experience has been on the ground. It was definitely useful to prove some approaches and skills in those three minutes."

Gezeravci is the first citizen of Türkiye (Turkey) to fly into space. He and his backup, Tuva Cihangir Atasever, were selected by their government to represent the country on this flight. Gezeravci is a fighter pilot with the Turkish Air Force and has served as a captain with Turkish Airlines for seven years.

"I am honored and humbled to be the first ever Turkish astronaut to go to space," Gezeravci said. "I am grateful to my country and to my government for giving me this chance, not only for myself but for the future of Turkish young generations."

Wandt was named as a reserve astronaut with ESA's 2022 class of candidates. He is now an ESA project astronaut for the duration of his mission duties and the first representative from the agency to fly on a commercial mission. His ESA science mission is named "Muninn" after one of the two raven accomplices of the god Odin from Norse mythology. The other raven "Huginn" is the namesake for fellow ESA astronaut Mogensen's mission, who Wandt will meet up with on the space station.

Wandt is Sweden's second citizen to fly into space after Christer Fuglesang, a now-former ESA astronaut.

"This mission opens a new way of gaining access to space and making sure we have an even larger European presence in human space exploration," said Wandt.

Ax-3 is the third flight for Crew Dragon Freedom, which previously flew SpaceX's Crew-4 and Axiom's Ax-2 to and from the space station.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying "Freedom," a Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the Axiom Space Axiom-3 (Ax-3) crew on Thursday, Jan. 18. 2024. (SpaceX)

Axiom Space's Ax-3 crew are seen in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft "Freedom," from left: mission specialist Marcus Wandt, pilot Walter Villadei, commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and mission specialist Alper Gezeravci. (SpaceX)

The Ax-3 astronauts are the first all-European crew as evident by the flags on their flight suits: Marcus Wandt of Sweden, Michael Lopez-Alegria of Spain (and the U.S.), Walter Villadei of Italy and Alper Gezeravci of Türkiye. (Axiom Space)

Axiom Space's Axiom-3 (Ax-3) crew mission patch. (Axiom Space)

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