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With multiple championship wins as an Endurance GT race car driver and a stint as an airshow pilot under his belt, John Shoffner has been behind the wheel of some of the most extreme vehicles on Earth. But he’s never ridden in a SpaceX Dragon. That’s about to change late next year when he serves as the pilot on Axiom Space’s second crewed mission to the ISS.
Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner
“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut and go to space since I was 8 years old, but once I got past a certain age I let go of it to focus on other things,” says Shoffner to Supercluster. “But today the commercialization of space is actually here and the moment this opportunity opened with Axiom I couldn’t get on the telephone fast enough.”
He’ll ride in a Crew Dragon alongside Peggy Whitson, a veteran NASA astronaut who has logged more days in space than any American in history. Whitson retired from NASA in 2018, but she signed on to command the mission as a private citizen.
Shoffner was a natural fit for the Axiom-2 mission given his background as a pilot and race car driver.
And while he doesn’t pretend that flying an aircraft and flying a spacecraft are even remotely comparable, he has picked up some skills in the air that will come in handy when he’s hurtling through the void. “In airplanes, you’re constantly scanning, looking for things, sensing movement, and dealing with a lot of data,” says Shoffner. “The Dragon capsule has a lot of automation so you don’t do a lot of stick and rudder stuff, but it’s still going to be amazing to fly a spaceship.”
When Shoffner’s not racing cars or doing stunts in planes, he supports life science research as an investor in areas ranging from longevity to cancer.
This, too, will come to bear during the Axiom-2 mission. During their roughly weeklong sojourn in orbit, he and Whitson will conduct single-cell genome sequencing demonstrations on the ISS for 10x Genomics, one of the world leaders in biology products for human health.
“I’ve known the people at 10x since they first started about a decade ago and they’re a good fit for research on orbit,” says Shoffner. “They’re well-regarded in the industry and used by the top 100 research institutes. But there’s no single-cell sequencing on orbit at the moment and the researchers want that.”
Life science experiments in space are important because it allows scientists to study biological processes in a zero-gravity environment. Gravity is perhaps the only environmental input faced by all species on Earth that hasn’t changed since multicellular life first emerged 3 billion years ago. So when you remove this constant, cellular machinery starts to behave in unusual—and sometimes beneficial—ways. But running biology experiments in microgravity is tricky and requires specialized hardware and protocols to pull it off. Part of Shoffner and Whitson’s job will be to help develop the protocols for running single-cell sequencing experiments on orbit.
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Single-cell sequencing experiments are important for helping scientists how genetics influence cellular behavior. There are many different health applications for this, but Whitson cited research on osteoporosis, a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle, as a particularly exciting application that is relevant both in space and on Earth. Patients with osteoporosis on Earth lose about 1% of their bone mass annually and astronauts lose about 1% of their bone mass for every month they’re in microgravity unless they take preventative measures like regular—and strenuous—exercise.
The exact cellular mechanics that cause the deterioration of bones in each of these cases is not well understood, but Whitson and Shoffner hope they can push the science forward by helping 10x Genomics develop the tools it will need to study these types of health issues in microgravity.
“Cell tissues are a mixture of cells and single-cell genomics can actually sequence the genome from every different type of cell to help you understand what the cells are doing in detail and how they’ve changed from Earth,” says Whitson. “Doing tissue experiments on orbit is actually a really great place to do it because tissues grow in space more like they do in your body. So maybe this will help us develop a drug or therapy that will work better on Earth.”
But the mission is about more than advancing fundamental life science. It’s also about pushing the boundaries of how humans live and work in space. Axiom aims to become the first company to build and operate a private space station that will serve as a home away from home for a new generation of private astronauts and companies that want to expand their R&D efforts to a microgravity platform. The first module is currently under construction at the company’s headquarters in Houston and is expected to launch to the ISS sometime in 2024. The crew module will attach to the space station and serve as a home away from home for private astronauts.
Axiom has plans to build two additional modules—a laboratory and an observatory similar to the cupola on the ISS—which will be attached to its crew module on the ISS a year later. The company plans to leave its three-module space station attached to the ISS until it is retired, which will likely happen sometime before the end of this decade. At that point, the Axiom space station will detach itself and become the first free-flying private space station in history.
Photo © GT Sport
Axiom is not the first company to make plans for a space hotel in low Earth orbit, but they’re on track to become the first company to actually pull it off. This is due in no small part to the leadership of the company’s CEO Michael Suffredini, who served as the program manager for the International Space Station for more than a decade before he left the agency to cofound Axiom in 2015. Suffredini arguably knows more about what it takes to build and operate a space station than anyone on the planet, and he’s brought this expertise to bear as the company works to turn its ambitious dream into a reality.
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Between now and when Axiom launches its first crew module to the ISS, the company plans to launch one private crewed mission to the ISS every six months pending SpaceX’s launch schedule and the station’s capacity. Its first private mission to the ISS is slated for early next year and will carry three private citizens and one former space shuttle astronaut, Michael López-Alegría. It was originally expected that Tom Cruise would fly on the first Axiom mission for a movie project, but it was rescheduled for a subsequent flight.
The Axiom crew missions are a sign of the rapidly changing commercial space sector. Sending race car drivers and A-list movie stars to the world’s most sophisticated orbital laboratory atop a private launch vehicle would have sounded laughable only a few years ago. Now it’s quickly becoming a routine mission profile and the trend is only likely to grow into the future. We’ve got the rockets and soon we’ll have the space hotels.
Now all you need is a ticket.