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Countdown continues for SpaceX mission headed to the International Space Station


A privately charted mission to the International Space Station is set to launch today from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A SpaceX capsule will transport a four-member crew for a two-week mission. The crew has a packed schedule with dozens of science experiments. WMFE's Brendan Byrne explains how the work will help prepare for future private missions and commercial space stations.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The international crew is made up of astronauts from the European Space Agency, Italian Air Force and Turkish Space Agency. The crew is commanded by Axiom Space's Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut. The crew will conduct 30 experiments over the two-week stay, says Lopez-Alegria.


MICHAEL LOPEZ-ALEGRIA: It's going to be very, very busy.

BYRNE: Their work includes research into proteins related to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, examining how microgravity affects plant genes, and testing sensors that look for contaminants in the air. This is Houston-based Axiom Space's third mission to the ISS. The company hasn't disclosed the cost to take a trip to the station. But before its first flight, it advertised a price tag of $55 million per seat. Despite the cost, these type of missions are far from a millionaire's joyride to space.

JOHN SHOFFNER: You don't train for two and a half years for a vacation, so it was anything but.

BYRNE: Investor and racing driver John Shoffner flew on Axiom's last mission to the station, spending nine days in orbit. Shoffner and the crew conducted a similar cadence of experiments and outreach events and was even the subject of an ongoing experiment. Scientists with Baylor's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, are interested in space adaptation syndrome, a kind of motion sickness caused by the human body's adaptation to microgravity. It's experienced by many space travelers, both career NASA astronauts and private space fliers, and includes symptoms like nausea and vomiting. But Shoffner says other problems pop up, like brain fog and fatigue.

SHOFFNER: Some astronauts call it space stupid because it's challenging, and we need to understand that more.

BYRNE: These symptoms can affect an astronaut's performance in orbit and even limit the amount of work they can accomplish. With time and space so expensive, it's important to maximize an astronaut's time so they can perform experiments, not spend most of their time feeling sick. That's why data from Shoffner's flight is joining a growing data set compiled by TRISH, says chief medical officer Emmanuel Urquieta.

EMMANUEL URQUIETA: This includes things like sensorimotor adaptation. How is your balance going to change before and after spaceflight? Are you going to develop space motion sickness, and what can we learn from you to prevent the next generation of fliers that would not develop space motion sickness in space?

BYRNE: That includes collecting blood, saliva, urine, and skin and stool swabs before, during, and after flight. Researchers are also looking at how the human body changes and how to better prepare people to make the most of their time in space. This study comes at a critical moment for orbital research. NASA announced plans to retire the International Space Station in the next decade and wants the commercial sector to build private space-based platforms for research. Axiom is one company doing that already, and others like Blue Origin and Voyager Space are working on stations of their own. This means more people will have access to space. And for Axiom 2 pilot John Shoffner, he's happy to serve as a research subject.

SHOFFNER: Wanting to become part of this first early entry was important to me because I wanted to not only be part of the development of early datasets, but experience spaceflight as it exists now, before it changes, before we understand much more.

BYRNE: So far, they've collected data from about 16 spaceflight participants, including the four about to launch the station. They'll keep adding to that as more commercial missions take flight.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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