Commercial Space Travelers Outnumbered Professional Astronauts in First Half of 2022

Axiom Mission 1 astronauts, left to right, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Michael López-Alegría, and Eytan Stibbe. The astronauts are approved by NASA and its international partners for Axiom Space’s first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. (Credits: Chris Gunn – Axiom Space)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first half of 2022 saw more commercial travelers — 16 — launch into space than the 10 professional astronauts who work for government-run space agencies. However, those numbers come with an asterisk or two.

Four of the 14 astronauts who launched into orbit flew on Axiom Space’s privately funded and operated crew flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Blue Origin launched 12 individuals into space on two flights of the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The other 10 astronauts who launched to ISS and the Tiangong space station worked fulltime for NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), China Manned Space Agency, or Russia’s Roscosmos State Space Corporation. SpaceX flew American and European astronauts to ISS on the company-owned Crew Dragon spacecraft under a NASA contract. The Russians and Chinese flew aboard government-owned and operated spacecraft.

While access to space continued to open up during the first half of 2022, there are a few of those asterisks mentioned earlier. The number of private space travelers is impressive, but there were significant differences in the lengths of the flights between the groups of space travelers.

The world’s first cryptonaut, Victor Correa Hespanha, gets a high five as he emerges from the New Shepard capsule after his spaceflight. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The 10 government astronauts were launched on missions that will last six months or so. The four astronauts of Axiom Mission-1 (Ax-1) spent nearly 17 days in space — a week longer than expected due to inclement weather in the splashdown zone. They were short-term visitors the station who conducted research and experiments rather than long-term occupants who lived and worked there.

Blue Origin’s 12 spaceflight participants’ visits to space lasted mere minutes. It was long enough to experience the thrill of floating around in zero gravity for several minutes while staring mouths agape at the beauty of the Earth below them. A life-changing experience, to be sure, but an ever-so-brief dip into the vast ocean of outer space.

Let’s take a closer look at the flights these space travelers took.

Space station crew welcomes the Ax-1 astronauts to the ISS. (Credit: Axiom Space)

Orbital Spaceflight

Three nations launched 14 astronauts into orbit on four different vehicles during the first half of the year.

International Space Station and Chinese Space Station Launches
January – July 1 2022

DateNationLaunch VehicleSpacecraftFlight PurposeCrew
March 18, 2022 –RussiaSoyuz-2.1aSoyuz MS-21Soyuz Crew to ISSOleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, Sergey Korsakov
April 8 – April 25, 2022United StatesFalcon 9Crew DragonAxiom Mission-1 to ISSMichael Lopez-Alegria, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Eytan Stibbe
April 27, 2022 –United StatesFalcon 9Crew DragonCrew-4 to ISSKjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, Samantha Christoferetti
June 5, 2022 –ChinaLong March 2FShenzhou-14Crew to TiangongChen Dong, Liu Yang, Cai Xuzhe

Spaceflight remained a predominately male activity with 11 men and three women flying into orbit. The comparable figure for suborbital flights was 10 men and two women. Men accounted for 80.8 percent of the 26 individuals who ventured into space during the first six months of 2022.

The Crew-4 and Shenzhou-14 flights included female astronauts Christoferetti and Yang. The Ax-1 and Soyuz MS-21 missions were all male.

Orbital Launches by Astronaut Nationality & Gender
January – June 2022

NationalityAstronaut(s)Mission(s)MaleFemaleTotal
AmericanLarry Connor (Ax-1); Robert Hines, Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins (NASA/Crew-4)Crew-4, Ax-1314
American-SpanishMichael Lopez-AlegriaAx-1101
ChineseChen Dong, Liu Yang, Cai XuzheShenzhou-14213
RussianOleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, Sergey KorsakovSoyuz MS-21303
CanadianMark PathyAx-1101
IsraeliEytan StibbeAx-1101
ItalianSamantha Christoferetti (ESA)Crew-4011
Total:11314

Orbital flights were dominated by citizens of the three countries — United States, China and Russia — capable of launching crews in orbit. Ten astronauts were nationals of the three nations, while another was a former NASA astronaut with dual American and Spanish citizenship. Canadian, Israeli and Italian nationals also flew to orbit.

Official portrait of Crew-4 astronauts Bob Hines, Samantha Cristoforetti, Jessica Watkins and Kjell Lindgren. (Credit: NASA-J.Valcarcel/ R.Markowitz/N.Moran)

International Space Station

ISS operations continued normally despite tensions among the partners over the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, and repeated threats by Russia to leave the program over sanctions imposed by the West.

Russia launched one three-member Soyuz crew and two Progress resupply ships to the space station. SpaceX sent two four-member crews to the orbiting laboratory. Boeing completed an uncrewed flight test of its CST-100 spacecraft. Northrop Grumman launched a Cygnus resupply ship to the station amid uncertainty over the future of its Antares rocket caused by the war in Ukraine.

International Space Station Crew Launches and Return Flights
January – July 1 2022

DateNationLaunch VehicleSpacecraftFlight PurposeCrew
March 18, 2022RussiaSoyuz-2.1aSoyuz MS-21ISS Crew LaunchOleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, Sergey Korsakov
March 30, 2022RussiaSoyuz MS-19ISS Crew ReturnAnton Shkoplerov, Pyotr Dubrov, Mark Vande Hei
April 8, 2022United StatesFalcon 9Crew DragonAxiom Mission-1Michael Lopez Alegria, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Eytan Stibbe
April 25, 2022United StatesCrew DragonAxiom Mission-1 ReturnMichael Lopez Alegria, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Eytan Stibbe
April 27, 2022United StatesFalcon 9Crew DragonISS Crew-4 LaunchKjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, Samantha Christoferetti
May 6, 2022United StatesCrew DragonISS Crew-3 ReturnRaja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Matthias Mauer, Kayla Barron

Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov were launched to the space station aboard the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft on March 18. They joined a seven-member crew that included: Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov; NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn and Mark Vande Hei; and ESA astronaut Matthias Mauer.

Dubrov, Shkaplerov and Vande Hei departed the space station aboard Soyuz MS-19 on March 30. Dubrov and Vande Hei had spent nearly a year — 355 days — in space while Shkaplerov’s mission lasted for 176 days. Dubrov and Vande Hei were to have returned to Earth in October 2021 after a six-month mission, but Roscosmos changed the schedule while they were in orbit to accommodate a special project.

On Oct. 5, 2021, Shkaplerov flew film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to the station where they filmed scenes for a motion picture named, “The Challenge.” Shkaplerov stayed aboard while Shipenko and Peresild returned to Earth with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky on Soyuz MS-18 after 12 days in space.

Ax-1 crew prior to launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

The first fully private crewed flight to the space station was launched aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon on April 8. Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria commanded the Ax-1 mission with three paying customers: American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe. The three men reportedly paid $55 million apiece for their flights.

The Ax-1 astronauts conducted a series of experiments and educational projects during their nearly 17-day mission, which ended on April 25. It was the second private mission launched by SpaceX following the Inspiration4 flight during which four individuals spent three days in Earth orbit aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft in September 2021. The company is planning to fly a series of commercial Earth orbit and ISS missions in the future in addition to launching crews for NASA.

SpaceX launched the Crew-4 mission two days after the Ax-1 Crew Dragon splashed down off the coast of Florida. NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins and ESA astronaut Samantha Christoferetti arrived safely at the station for a six-month mission.

Crew-3 astronauts Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Mauer returned to Earth on May 6 after a mission that lasted 176 days.

Boeing’s Starliner crew ship is seen moments after docking to the International Space Station’s forward port on the Harmony module. (Credit: NASA TV)

CST-100 Starliner Flight Test

On April 19 an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launched Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the space station. The uncrewed spacecraft docked with ISS during a successful six-day flight test that ended with a landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on May 25.

Starliner was loaded with 245 kg (540 lb) pounds of cargo for the space station crew. One seat was filled by Rosie the Rocketeer, an instrumented anthropomorphic test device that provided valuable data on what astronauts would experience during the flight. Starliner returned with nitrogen-oxygen recharge tanks that will be refurbished on the ground and launched to the station again.

NASA astronauts Bob Hines and Kjell Lindgren greet “Rosie the Rocketeer” inside the Boeing Starliner spacecraft shortly after opening its hatch. (Credit: NASA)

The second uncrewed flight test was necessary because of the failure of a Starliner to reach the space station during a flight in December 2019 due to software and communications anomalies with the spacecraft. The successful mission paved the way for a crewed flight test carrying NASA astronauts.

Russia’s Progress 80 resupply ship blasted off on Feb. 14 at 11:25 p.m. EST from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: NASA TV)

ISS Cargo Flights

Russia launched the Progress MS-19 and MS-20 resupply ships in February and June, respectively. Northrop Grumman launched the Cygnus NG-17 mission to the station in February. SpaceX would launch its first cargo vehicle of the year on July 15.

International Space Station Uncrewed Cargo and Flight Tests
January — July 15, 2022

DateNationLaunch VehicleSpacecraftPurposeNotes
Jan. 24, 2022United StatesFalcon 9Cargo Dragon 2ISS Cargo ReturnLaunched Dec. 21, 2021; splashed down off Florida coast
Feb. 15, 2022RussiaSoyuz-2.1aProgress MS-19ISS Resupply Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome
Feb. 19, 2022United StatesAntaresCygnus NG-17ISS ResupplyLaunched from Wallops Island, Va.
May 19, 2022United StatesAtlas VCST-100 StarlinerISS Flight TestLaunched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.
May 25, 2022United StatesAtlas VCST-100 StarlinerISS Capsule ReturnLanded at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
June 1, 2022RussiaSoyuz-2.1aProgress MS-18ISS Spacecraft DepartureLaunched on Oct. 28, 2021; burned up in Earth’s atmosphere
June 3, 2022RussiaSoyuz-2.1aProgress MS-20ISS ResupplyLaunched from Baikonur Cosmodrome
June 29, 2022United StatesAntaresCygnus (NG-17)ISS Spacecraft DepartureBurned up in Earth’s atmosphere
July 15, 2022United StatesFalcon 9Cargo Dragon 2 (CRS-25)ISS ResupplyLaunched from Kennedy Space Center

Three resupply ships departed the station during the first half of the year. A SpaceX Cargo Dragon 2 capsule splashed down off the coast of Florida after departing ISS on Jan. 24. Progress MS-18 departed on June 1 and burned up in the atmosphere. The Cygnus NG-17 spacecraft left the station on June 29 and similarly burned up during reentry.

Antares Future in Doubt

While Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus mission was a success, the long-term future of the Antares rocket would be thrown into uncertainty by the Russian invasion of Ukraine five days after the spacecraft’s Feb. 19 launch from Wallops Island, Va.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket liftoff from pad 0A at 12:40 p.m. EST from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, on Feb. 19, 2022. The Cygnus spacecraft, carrying 8,300 pounds of science investigations and cargo, is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Monday, Feb. 21. (Credits: NASA Wallops/Allison Stancil)

The Antares first stage is built in Ukraine; its two RD-181 are built in Russia. Procurement of the first stage was suspended due to the invasion. Russia subsequently announced that it would no longer sell RD-181 engines due to sanctions imposed by the U.S. government over its Ukraine aggression.

Northrop Grumman said it has stages and engines for two Cygnus resupply missions planned for later in the year and spring 2023. Company officials say they are exploring various options for continuing to launch Cygnus resupply ships to ISS under contract with NASA. (Cygnus is the only spacecraft Antares has ever launched; Northrop Grumman has not booked any payloads from other companies.)

Northrop Grummans’s Cygnus space freighter, with its prominent cymbal-shaped UltraFlex solar arrays, is pictured Feb. 21, 2022, approaching the International Space Station carrying 8,300 pounds of new science experiments, crew supplies, and station hardware to replenish the Expedition 66 crew. (Credits: NASA)

ULA’s Atlas V rockets launched three Cygnus to the space station following the explosion of an Antares rocket shortly after launch in October 2014. At that time, officials decided to abandon using NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s 1960’s lunar program to power the first stage. It took two years before Antares equipped with RD-181 engines resumed launching Cygnus spacecraft.

Northrop Grumman’s options are rather limited this time around. ULA is phasing out production of the Atlas V rocket in favor of the new Vulcan Centaur booster. Remaining Atlas V flights have been booked while its successor has suffered significant delays. The maiden Vulcan Centaur launch could occur at the end of the year.

Europe’s Arianespace is in a similar situation with its transition from the Ariane 5 to the Ariane 6 launch vehicle. Japan has faced delays with its H3 rocket as it phases out its H-IIA rocket. The H-IIB rocket that launched Japanese cargo ships to ISS is already retired.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a possibility. With the majority of Falcon 9 launches devoted to deploying the company’s Starlink satellite broadband constellation, SpaceX would likely welcome the revenue that would come from launching Cygnus missions. What the technical challenges are of adapting the rocket and spacecraft for launch is unclear.

Taikonauts Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang. (Credit: CASC)

China Space Station

China launched a new three-member crew of Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe to the Tiangong space station on June 5. The Shenzhou-14 taikonauts are the third crew to occupy China’s first permanent space station, and the second one scheduled for a six-month mission. The first three astronauts to occupy the station last year stayed for six months.

Chinese Tiangong Launches and Return Flights
January – July 24, 2022

DateLaunch VehicleLaunch SiteSpacecraftPurposeCrew
April 16, 2022Long March 2FJiuquanShenzhou-13Crew returnZhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, Ye Guangfu (launched Oct. 15, 2021)
May 9, 2022Long March 7WenchangTianzhou 4ResupplyNone
June 5, 2022Long March 2FJiuquanShenzhou-14Crew launchChen Dong, Liu Yang, Cai Xuzhe
July 24, 2022Long March 5AWenchangWentianSpace station science moduleNone

The Shenzhou-13 crew of Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu ended a 6-month mission in April. The Tianzhou-4 resupply ship was launched to the station in May prior to the arrival of Shenzhou-14.

The Shenzhou-14 taikonauts will oversee the initial assembly of the space station during their mission. The 23-metric ton Wentian module was launched on July 24, docking with the station early the next day after a 13-hour flight.

Chinese Wentian space station module (Credit: Leebrandoncremer, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The 17.9 meter long module includes laboratory equipment for life sciences, biotechnology and variable gravity experiments. The module also has 22 external mounting devices that will allow for the attachment of unpressurized experiments. Wentian features a robotic arm that is half the size as the one mounted on the outside of the Tianhe core module.

Wentian includes three sleeping berths, a kitchen and a toilet to accommodate the expansion of the station’s full-time complement from three to six taikonauts. The module will provide additional propulsion, control and avionics to back up the Tianhe core. Wentian is powered by two solar panels.

Chinese Mengtian space station module (Credit: Leebrandoncremer, CC BY-SA 4.0)

China will launch the Mengtian laboratory module in October to complete initial assembly of the space station. Mengtian is similar in size and design to Wentian.

Suborbital Spaceflight

New Shepard launches on its 21st flight of the program on June 4, 2022. (Credit: Blue Origin)

With Virgin Galactic’s space vehicles in the hangar for lengthy overhauls, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had the human suborbital market all to itself. The company conducted two suborbital flights that flew 12 individuals above the Karman line.

Suborbital Human Spaceflight
January–June 2022

DateVehicleCompanyLocationSpaceflight ParticipantsNotes
March 31, 2022New Shepard (NS-20)Blue OriginCorn Ranch (Texas)Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle, Marc Hagle, Jim Kitchen, George Nield, Gary LaiFourth New Shepard human flight, 107 km (66.5 miles) apogee
June 4, 2022New Shepard (NS-21)Blue OriginCorn Ranch (Texas)Evan Dick, Katya Echazarreta, Hamish Harding, Victor Correa Hespanha, Jaison Robinson, Victor VescovoFifth New Shepard human flight, 107 km (66.5 miles) apogee
Source: Blue Origin

The NS-20 flight on March 31 gave New Shepard’s chief architect Gary Lai an opportunity to fly in a vehicle that he designed. Lai joined the flight after Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson dropped out due to a scheduling conflict.

Lai was joined on New Shepard’s 20th flight by George Nield, a private consultant who previously headed up the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that is responsible for licensing Blue Origin and all other commercial launches.

New Shepard NS-20 spaceflight participants. Pictured from left to right: Gary Lai, Jim Kitchen, Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle, Marc Hagle, and Dr. George Nield. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Marc and Sharon Hagle became the first couple to fly on a commercial space vehicle. Marc is president and CEO of Tricor International, a residential and commercial property development corporation. Sharon founded SpaceKids Global in 2015, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire students to excel in STEAM+ education with a focus on empowering young girls.

Rounding out the six-member group were Marty Allen and Jim Kitchen. Allen is an angel investor who was formerly CEO of Party America and California Closet Company. Kitchen is a teacher, entrepreneur, and world explorer who fulfilled a childhood dream of flying to space.

NS-21 spaceflight participants. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The NS-21 flight on June 4 included:

  • Evan Dick, who an engineer, investor, and managing member of Dick Holdings;
  • electrical engineer and former NASA test lead Katya Echazarreta;
  • business jet pilot and Action Aviation Chairman Hamish Harding;
  • Brazilian civil production engineer Victor Correa Hespanha;
  • Dream Variation Ventures co-founder Jaison Robinson; and
  • retired U.S. Navy Commander Victor Vescovo, who co-founded the Insight Equity private equity firm.

Echazarreta became the first Mexican-born woman and youngest American woman to fly to space. She flew as part of Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program.

Hespanha became the second Brazilian to fly to space. He was sponsored by the Crypto Space Agency, whose goal is to accelerate humankind’s off-world future.

New Shepard lands after the NS-21 flight. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Dick became the first person to fly on New Shepard for a second time, having previously reached space during the NS-19 flight on Dec. 11, 2021.

There were 10 men and two women on the two flights. Nine Americans, a woman with dual American and Mexican citizenship, one British citizen and a Brazilian flew on the two New Shepard launches.

New Shepard Spaceflight Participants by Nationality and Gender
January – June 2022

NationalitySpaceflight ParticipantsFlight(s)MaleFemaleTotal
AmericanMarty Allen, Evan Dick, Sharon Hagle, Marc Hagle, Jim Kitchen, Gary Lai, George Nield, Jaison Robinson, Victor VescovoNS-20, NS-21819
Mexican-AmericanKatya EchazarretaNS-21011
BrazilianVictor Correa HespanhaNS-21101
BritishHamish HardingNS-21101
Total:10212

On July 22, Blue Origin announced that four men and two women would fly on the company’s NS-22 mission. Participants include:

  • Dude Perfect co-founder Coby Cotton
  • Portuguese entrepreneur Mário Ferreira
  • British-American mountaineer Vanessa O’Brien
  • technology leader Clint Kelly III
  • Egyptian engineer Sara Sabry
  • telecommunications executive Steve Young. 

Sabry will become the first person from Egypt to fly to space; Ferreira will become the first space traveler from Portugal. O’Brien will become the first woman to reach extremes on land, sea, and air, completing the Explorers’ Extreme Trifecta, a Guinness World Record.

NS-22 spaceflight participants (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin has not announced a date for its third flight of the year and sixth human flight overall.