Private Space Station Crew Blasts Off

TThroughout this week, you can enjoy fine dining aboard the International Space Station. Flying at 408km (254 miles. above the Earth and clipping along at a brisk 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph), the crew will be tucking into arroz Estelle Valencia, a Spanish rice dish; secreto de cerdo with pisto—Ibérico Pork with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and peppers; and chicken and mushroom paella.

That, at least, is what four of the 11 crew members aboard the ISS will be eating—the four who will arrive at the station tomorrow morning, along with their full larder, after blasting off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft this morning from Cape Canaveral’s Pad 39A, at 11:17 AM EDT, on the first fully private station mission. The flight, sponsored by the Houston-based company Axiom Space and known as Ax-1, is commanded by Axiom vice president and former astronaut Michael López-Alegría. Also on board are three entrepreneurs and philanthropists: American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy, and Israeli Eytan Stibbe—each of whom who paid an estimated $55 million per seat for their 20-hour journey to the station and the eight days they will spend aboard.

Space tourists have flown to the ISS before—eleven of them over the past two decades; but all of them were solo adventurers who paid to fly aboard publicly funded ships crewed by professional astronauts. AX-1 is the first fully private mission to the station—but not the last. Axiom plans to launch at least three additional such missions in the next few years. What’s more, as I reported last week, Axiom plans to launch four separate modules to dock with the ISS—the first in 2024 and the others at nine-month intervals thereafter—which will separate and become their own private station before the ISS is decommissioned and de-orbited in 2030. Three other companies—Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman—are also planning to launch their own private space stations in this decade. All of these launches are not as exciting for everyone, but they do have an impact on the environment. Champion Traveler calculated that a Falcon 9 launch would produce the equivalent amount of 395 passenger transatlantic flights in terms of CO2 emissions based on fuel consumption and exhaust output.

All of this is to come. Today the AX-1 crew is preparing for the mission ahead, and—never mind their $55 million first class seats and their gourmand menu—they will be be working hard. In a pre-launch press conference, Connor told reporters: “We’ve spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours training. Additionally, across all of the astronauts here, we’re going to do some 25 different experiments encompassing over 100 hours of research [while] we are on the ISS.” One such experiment will involve a brain headset that will conduct real-time electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the crew as they fly. They will also conduct experiments with in vitro stem cells.

There will also be time to reflect on the past. Stibbe was the second Israeli space pilot. He had previously flown military aircraft under Ilan Ramon’s command, Israel’s first astronaut. Several pages from Ramon’s diary survived the crash and Stibbe will carry them aloft with him, along with a song written by Ramon’s son and a painting by his daughter of the diary pages falling from the sky.

Space can be a risky business and expensive. But it’s also an emotional one. “[Ramon] was a good friend,” Stibbe told CBS News, and then added respectfully: “He was my commander.”

The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Register here.

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