Mark Pathy didn’t realize he talked so much about going to space.
Then a friend sent him a news story three years ago about a company Mr. Pathy had never heard of that was putting together the first fully commercial mission to the International Space Station.
That’s when the 52-year-old Montreal businessman and philanthropist realized his desire to go into orbit was more apparent to others than he’d imagined – and worth serious consideration.
“I had to think,” said Mr. Pathy, who is CEO of the private investment company Mavrik. “Is this something I’m really dreaming about doing or is this one of those fantasies that’s destined to remain a fantasy.”
Mr. Pathy has long since answered that question. At 11:17 ET on Friday morning he is set to lift off in a Space X capsule that will bear him, along with three crew mates, to the space station.
In an interview, he said he saw the mission as a step toward opening up space to a broader range of people and interests.
“If we’re going to further our exploration efforts and achievements, then space can’t just be a place where only lifelong career astronauts are able to go,” he said.
It’s not the first time a Canadian has self-financed his own private space odyssey. Guy Laliberté, the billionaire co-founder of Cirque-du-Soleil, visited the ISS in September 2009, making him Canada’s first space tourist.
But while Mr. Laliberté had to purchase a seat aboard a Russian space capsule, Mr. Pathy’s trip – which comes at an estimated cost of $55-million – will mark a fascinating milestone in the evolution of commercial space flight.
“This really does represent the first step, where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low-Earth orbit, that aren’t members of a government, are able to to take this opportunity,” said Michael Suffrendi, president and CEO of Axiom Space, the company behind the voyage, at a news briefing last week.
The company has said the flight is destined to usher in a more ambitious program that will see its own components added to the space station starting in late 2024. At some point, those segments will detach and create an independent and fully commercial destination in space for those willing to pay for access to low-Earth orbit.
“Space, and the rise of private-sector commercial activity, represents huge opportunities,” said Mike Mueller, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. “We wish Mr. Pathy, and everyone involved, all the best.”
Friday’s planned launch will begin a 37-hour flight to the space station for Mr. Pathy, U.S. real estate investor Larry Connor and Israeli businessman and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe. Micheal Lopez-Alegria will lead the mission, dubbed Ax-1, for Axiom. The former NASA astronaut has four space missions under his belt, including three prior visits to the station
The project is far different, both in duration and complexity, than a series of private space flights that garnered media attention in 2021. Last July, space tourism entrepreneurs Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each separately surpassed the 80-kilometre (50-mile) altitude mark in their respective companies’ suborbital vehicles, allowing each to spend a few minutes visiting the edge of outer space.
In contrast, Mr. Pathy and his crewmates will spend about 10 days in orbit, living and working on the space station alongside astronauts from the U.S., Russia and Europe and conducting their own individually designed research programs.
“To me that really says a lot about this first commercial crew … All of them are doing research experiments and technology demonstrations,” said Dave Williams, a former Canadian Space Agency astronaut and CEO of Leap Bio Systems Inc. The Halifax-based company has been working with Mr. Pathy to fulfill his inflight mission goals, which include working on 16 projects with several Canadian universities and other research partners.
Among them are some with well-established track records of space-based research. For example, Andrew Blaber, who directs the Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., will take advantage of Mr. Pathy’s trip to test a new technique for measuring the effects of space flight on the heart, lungs and circulation – an extension of work he is already involved in with the Canadian Space Agency.
He said that while Mr. Pathy’s mission is considered relatively short by space station standards, it provides an opportunity to collect data on people who, while healthy, do not necessarily share the same ultra-high fitness profile as career astronauts.
“And if we’re expanding with private space, we’re going to see more and more people like Mark,” Dr. Blaber said.
Other researchers are exploring in new directions, including Pablo Ingelmo and colleagues at McGill University and the Montreal Children’s Hospital, an institution with which Mr. Pathy has a previous relationship through his philanthropy. The team has projects on the mission that will use microgravity to study pain and inflammation, an area with limited prior history in space research.
Among the more intriguing technologies that Mr. Pathy will work with is a two-way “holoportation” device developed by Houston, TX-based company Aexa Aerospace. The device allows users wearing special lenses to experience three-dimensional images while communicating with people on Earth.
During his flight, Mr. Pathy will also be conducting Earth observations in conjunction with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the University of Western Ontario.
Adam Sirek, a physician who specializes in aerospace medicine and is affiliated with both Leap Biosystems and Western, said that while involvement with private space flight was a new experience for him, it felt “quite similar” to working with Canadian Space Agency astronauts because of Mr. Pathy’s commitment to his own mission’s success.
“From my point of view, Mark is an extremely dedicated and interested individual … who I think is going to mesh very well with the ISS crew on orbit.”
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