First All-European Commercial Astronaut Crew Ready For AX-3 Mission To The ISS In 2024

Artists' impression of a Crew Dragon approaching the forward port of Harmony on the ISS. In the box, the four crew members of AX-3 (Image credit: NASA/Axiom Space)

Axiom Space’s AX-3 crew from Italy, Turkey and Sweden will carry out several experiments aboard the International Space Station.

Axiom Mission 3 (or Ax-3) is the name of the planned first all-European private spaceflight to the International Space Station operated by Axiom Space. The flight, that will launch with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is scheduled “no earlier” than January 2024.

Once docked to the ISS, the plan is for the AX-3 crew to spend up to 14 days on board implementing a full mission comprised of microgravity research, educational outreach, and commercial activities.

All AX-3 crew members have a previous experience in the military. Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei will serve as pilot. The two mission specialists are Alper Gezeravcı, the first astronaut from Turkey, and European Space Agency (ESA) project astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden. Axiom Space’s Chief Astronaut Michael López-Alegría (dual citizen of the U.S. and Spain), former NASA astronaut and Axiom Mission 1 commander, will serve as the Ax-3 commander.

AX-3 crew (Axiom Space)

Meeting the AX-3 crew members

We had a chance to met all the astronauts during a virtual media roundtable held on Oct. 16, 2023.

AX-3 commander, retired NASA astronaut Mike López-Alegría, in his opening remarks underlined the significant increase in the amount of collaboration between Axiom and European countries, “that really positions them at the forefront of this commercial human space flight enterprise.”

“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 (LEO),” López-Alegría said.

“And we are also embarking on an important next step to the Axiom station, the first commercial space station in the world and the successor to the ISS. We’re proving that we can work alongside NASA to develop commercial, private missions and we hope to continue the ISS’s important legacy in research in low earth orbit. It is my hope and actually my expectation that other countries will be inspired by this mission to pursue the unique opportunities available to them now with the commercialization of low earth orbit.”

“It’s a privilege and a big honor to be the pilot of Ax-3 mission” said Col. Villadei during the zoom meeting. “First of all let me express my gratitude to the Italian Air Force and to my country for this incredible opportunity that is joining this endeavor. AX-3 mission is for Italy a groundbreaking mission, one fundamental pillar of our National space strategy, as our PM stated few days ago. The mission is a unique opportunity to benefit the commercial, the private, the academic, the scientific and industrial community and also to gain a relevant role in the new space economy and then the commercial activities in LEO (low-Earth orbit). It is a country effort in promoting a safer, wider and resilient access to space.”

Col. Walter Villadei during training activities. (Axiom Space)

“For the first time,” Villadei said, “the mission will be led by the Ministry of Defense and Italian Air Force as one of the most
knowledgeable Italian institution in space domain. This mission, along with the MOU [Memorandum Of Understanding] that Italy signed with Axiom space in 2022, will enable Italy to play a wider role in the dialogue in this sector at the European level and international level and I personally believe that the space is already the frontier where we are expanding our science and technology”.

Turkish astronaut Alper Gezeravci, with a background as fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force as well as a Turkish Airlines captain, said the mission is going to put a remarkable footprint on Turkey’s centennial, and to solidify the unit of Turkish people a nation which was devastated by a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake earlier this year.

Swedish astronaut Wandt, with an experience as a fighter and test pilot too, said “Sweden is positioning itself and making sure that we
continue to be the knowledge base and the high-tech producing country that we are. From a European perspective this mission opens up a
new way EU getting access to space and making sure that we have an even larger European presence in human space exploration.”

Space Situational Awareness

During AX-3 mission, the Italian Air Force will carry out, for the very first time, testing activities from space, on the ISOC (Italian Space Operations Centre) software system, the heart of its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability.

We asked Col. Villadei to give us a few more details about it. And this is what he told us:

“This is an an important experiment to the Italian Air Force. Space situational awareness actually is just reflection of a very important issue that we are facing in space. Space is going to be more and more congested since the increase of the space activities. In 2015 at the European level, the European Commission established a Consortium to deal with the space surveillance and tracking. Italy was among the founding nations along with others France, Spain and the UK (then this Consortium has been expanded further to almost I guess 15 countries).”

LEO is becoming increasingly crowded. Lower orbits are where thousands of pieces of space debris reside in clouds or clusters. Some of the objects there can be inactive, dead and, as such, non-maneuverable.

Artist’s impression of space debris (ESA)

“We are trying to protect the infrastructure: the scope of this experiment, is to test the catalogue that we are growing up and the software developed by the Italian Air Force and the SSA operational centers which allow us to see which kind of risk we have of collisions with secondary objects. So, the idea is that at certain point, through these experiments we will get connected to the ISOC and I will play with some coordinates with some tasks just to see what is the level of risk that we encounter in those conditions and try to feed inside the experiments also some indications in terms of space weather.”

Space weather events, like winds and magnetic waves that move through space, may pose a threat to the electronic systems and instruments aboard the spacecraft or ISS and need to be factored in.

“Obviously, in the real activities right now the ISS is protected by NASA along with the Space Force so this kind of capability is already in place. But think about the future: one day we are going to fly around the Moon or get to Mars: we should have at that point an autonomous capability on the spacecraft and infrastructure supporting it, and this is what we are just starting to grow up, at national level and through international cooperation, in LEO.”

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.