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SpaceX launches 4 people for a private mission to the International Space Station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with its Crew Dragon capsule launches from pad LC-39A during Axiom Space's Ax-3 Mission at the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on January 18, 2024.
Chandan Khanna
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AFP via Getty Images
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with its Crew Dragon capsule launches from pad LC-39A during Axiom Space's Ax-3 Mission at the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on January 18, 2024.

The first all-European commercial crew is on its way to the International Space Station after an early evening SpaceX launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Unlike a NASA mission, this one is paid for by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company flying its third group of paying passengers to the I.S.S. It contracts with SpaceX to get to and from the orbital laboratory. Axiom plans to build its own space station in orbit one day and it's using these missions to help in its planning and designs.

An attempt to launch the mission Wednesday was called off several hours before its scheduled flight. SpaceX and Axiom said they needed additional time "to complete pre-launch checkouts and data analysis, including the parachute system energy modulator." The next day SpaceX said, "all systems are looking good for today's launch" without elaborating further.

The capsule will take the next 36 hours racing to catch up to the I.S.S. as it circles about 250 miles above Earth. After docking, the crew will spend two weeks on the orbital laboratory performing about 30 experiments, including "microgravity research, technology demonstrations, and outreach engagements," according to Axiom.

This mission, called Ax-3, is flying a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft named Freedom. The capsule has flown in space twice previously and gone to the International Space Station each time (Crew-4 in 2022 and Ax-2in 2023). Freedom has spent a total of 179 days in space.

The Ax-3 crew is led by Axiom chief astronaut Michael López-Alegría (A dual U.S.-Spanish citizen and former NASA astronaut and ISS commander). He'll serve as the Ax-3 commander and is joined by three paying passengers: Pilot Walter Villadei of the Italian Air Force, and mission specialists Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and Marcus Wandt of Sweden and the European Space Agency.

For Gezeravcı, who is the first Turkish astronaut to go to space, "This spaceflight is not a destination but a journey. This is just the beginning of our journey - for a long growing space journey in our future."

The Ax-3 crew will join seven other people currently on the I.S.S.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Members of the Axiom Space's Ax-3 mission (from left to right), Mission Specialist Marcus Wandt of Sweden, Mission Specialist Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey, Pilot Walter Villadei of Italy and Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain, arrive at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on January 18, 2024.
Gregg Newtown / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Axiom Space's Ax-3 mission (from left to right), Mission Specialist Marcus Wandt of Sweden, Mission Specialist Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey, Pilot Walter Villadei of Italy and Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain, arrive at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on January 18, 2024.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.

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