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Businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy outside of Montreal, on Jan. 9, 2021.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

If it were up to Mark Pathy, nobody except those directly involved would know he’s going to space.

But when you’re blasting off on a 21-storey-high rocket in a deafening roar under the power of 1.7 million pounds of thrust, it’s hard to be inconspicuous. When you happen to be part of the first fully private human spaceflight mission to Earth’s orbit, even more so.

The low-profile Montreal businessman and philanthropist, 51, is set to become the 11th Canadian to travel to space when he lifts off next year as part of the maiden mission of Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that provides astronaut services and is manufacturing the world’s first commercial space station. He’ll also be the second Canadian to do so as a private citizen, after Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté.

It will be an unprecedented 10-day journey: a private company chartering a private spaceship (from Elon Musk’s SpaceX) for an all-private crew that will fly into orbit. Mr. Pathy is paying millions not only for an experience most of us can only dream about but also for a spot in history. In doing so, he’s grudgingly stepping into the spotlight after trying to stay out of it most of his life.

“If I could do this trip in anonymity I would,” he said in an interview ahead of the official announcement of his involvement Tuesday. “For sure I realize that I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to do this. But I also believe that it’s bigger than just me. I think this is an important next step in the future of human space exploration. And hopefully early investment in that future will make it more accessible for others.”

Mr. Pathy will join Israeli entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe and American non-profit activist Larry Connor on a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) tentatively scheduled for January, 2022. Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a veteran of three space shuttle missions who now leads Axiom’s business development, will command the mission.

The four men will travel in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which last year carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit for a rendezvous with the ISS. Crew Dragon was the first crewed ship to fly to space from the United States since the country closed its 30-year shuttle program in 2011 with the retirement of Atlantis.

Those involved say the mission, dubbed Ax-1, marks a big jump in the commercialization of space. That process began about a decade ago, when NASA turned to the Boeing Co. and SpaceX to carry cargo and astronauts to the ISS as needed under its newly created Commercial Crew Program, thereby reducing the agency’s reliance on Russia.

The Hurley and Behnken trip last May was the first time a private-sector company launched an orbital spacecraft with people aboard. Mr. Pathy remembers watching it and envisioning himself in their place. It was around the same time he first contacted Axiom after hearing they were organizing an all-private mission.

“I could already at that point imagine myself in the minutes and seconds leading up to the actual launch, strapped into that seat on top of a giant rocket full of highly combustible fuel,” he said, describing space travel as a lifelong dream. “The reality is I could do this later in life. … But I feel also life is very uncertain. And I’m healthy now. Who knows what happens in the next five, 10 years.”

Mr. Pathy is married and a father to three children, the ages of 6, 5 and 3. He runs his own investment firm, Mavrik Corp., which is the main source of his wealth today, with key recent payoffs from investments in data-warehousing company Snowflake Inc. and electronic payment processor Nuvei.

In addition to chairman duties at media company Stingray Group Inc., he sits on the board of his family’s shipping company, Fednav Ltd. He also devotes significant time to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation and homeless support organization Dans la rue.

The entrepreneur and investor says he’s adventurous but not a big risk-taker, at all times preferring the road less travelled. He’s an avid scuba diver. He drove a recreational vehicle through the Baltic states in 1992 and did another RV trip through the Balkans five years later during a lull in the fighting there.

He also went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012 with his wife, Jessica, and Stingray chief executive Eric Boyko during a period of instability in that country. The purpose of the trip was to visit Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist and Pentecostal pastor whose work helping women who’ve been raped earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Mukwege’s organization received funding from the Pathy Family Foundation.

“I was, like, ‘Well, this is the worst trip of my life,’” but they were very relaxed, Mr. Boyko said of the Pathys. “Mark is a unique individual, one of the few people that I know that is able to handle stress without being stressed.”

Mr. Pathy describes himself as physiologically average (“I’ve got high cholesterol and high blood pressure”) and paid in the ballpark of US$55-million for a spot on Ax-1. There was no formal application process like there is for a typical government-led program.

Instead, there were several conversations with senior Axiom executives, a battery of medical tests to determine his physical fitness and an in-depth psychiatric evaluation, he said. He’s the only member of his crew never to have flown a fighter jet.

After his acceptance, he reached out and spoke to Mr. Hurley, as well as Canada’s four active professional astronauts for their thoughts and guidance. “Those were great conversations actually, and I was pleasantly surprised that they welcomed me into the proverbial club and were very enthusiastic about this mission,” he said.

That approval by space professionals wasn’t always a given. When American millionaire Dennis Tito became the first person to fund his own trip into space in 2001, flying aboard Russia’s Soyuz shuttle to the ISS, NASA’s senior leadership and astronauts voiced strong objections to his presence.

But two decades and several tourist flights since then have created a certain comfort level among governments about the involvement of non-state actors in space travel, Mr. Lopez-Alegria said in a separate interview. And as Earth’s lower orbit shifts from being a realm controlled by governments to one where private enterprise has an increasing role, that comfort will only grow, he said.

“This is the beginning of an era. It’s an opportunity to set the bar high and get off on the right foot in commercial human spaceflight,” Mr. Lopez-Alegria said. “I think that our government counterparts will be very pleasantly surprised at the level of preparedness and professionalism that we’ll display. And I think they’ll want people like us to come back.”

At an event at the Nasdaq in New York in 2019, NASA executives unveiled a new push to boost commercial use of the ISS – an effort that could see Axiom’s privately built facility replace the space station, which is nearing the end of its working life. Axiom plans to offer flights for professional and private astronauts at a rate of up to two a year as it works on its facility.

NASA went so far as to release a price list for everything the ISS offers, from breathing air to using the loo. Each day will cost a visitor US$35,000.

Mr. Pathy will be doing more than using the ISS’s life support, however. After 15 weeks of training that includes exposure to extreme gravitational forces and familiarizing himself with each of the ISS’s four modules, he’ll take on between three and five research projects on the journey. They could include testing wearable medical devices and measuring what happens to the vital signs of a non-professional astronaut like himself when he blasts off into orbit, he said.

But in many ways, what he does when he comes back to Earth is even more important. Astronauts have described undergoing a cognitive shift in awareness during spaceflight that has since been dubbed “the overview effect,” which brings a new awareness of our planet as a fragile ball where the conflicts and divisions we know vanish. Mr. Pathy not only wants to experience it, he says he believes he can use it in his leadership and advocacy work when the trip is complete.

“I hope that I can eventually prove that this is more than just about a joy ride,” he said. “If space exploration is only suitable for people who’ve gone through 10 or more years of training and come from a military background or purely scientific background, it’s going to take a long time for us to make [significant] progress. … This to me is not a frivolous undertaking. It’s something that I think is important and meaningful.”

Editor’s note: This version corrects the spelling of Bob Behnken

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