Space 2023: Commercial Missions to ISS, Private Spacewalk & Suborbital Tourism Flights

Polaris Dawn crew Jared Isaacman, Anna Menon, Sarah Gillis and Scott Poteet. (Credit: Jared Isaacman)

Part 1 of a Series

The privatization of human spaceflight is set to accelerate this year with an increase in the number of commercial launches to the International Space Station (ISS) and the long-delayed start of suborbital space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic. Professional astronauts will continue to rotate to and from ISS and China’s Tiangong space station.

The table below shows scheduled orbital flights this year.

Scheduled Orbital Human Spaceflights, 2023

Launch Vehicle/SpacecraftMissionDescriptionFlights
Falcon 9/Crew DragonISS crewCrew-6 & Crew-7 for NASA2
Falcon 9/Crew DragonISS commercialAxiom Space missions with three paying customers per flight2-3
Falcon 9/Crew DragonCommercial orbital5-day Polaris Dawn orbital flight led by Jared Isaacman including1
Soyuz/Soyuz MSISS crewSoyuz MS-23 could be sent to ISS empty if the coolant leak aboard Soyuz MS-22 renders the spacecraft unsafe2
Long March 2F/ ShenzhouStation crewShenzhou-16 and Shenzhou-17 flights to launch fresh crews to space station2
Super Heavy/StarshipCommercial lunarPrivate dearMoon mission will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and eight passengers around the moon. Scheduled for 2023, but could slip into next year.1

Axiom Space will fly two to three missions to the International Space Station with a private astronaut as commander and three paying customers on each flight. The company flew its first mission to the station in 2022.

Axiom Space Ax-2 Commander Peggy Whitson and Pilot John Shoffner. (Credit: Axiom Space)

Set for the second quarter, the Ax-2 mission will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson with American race car driver and pilot John Shoffner as a customer. Axiom has not revealed the identities of the rest of the crew. However, reports indicate the Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Space Commission purchased the other two seats.

The Ax-3 mission is currently scheduled to fly in October. There are no details about the flight yet. The AX-4 mission could also be conducted this year, but it might slip into 2024.

Inspiration4 crew in orbit. (Credit: Inspiration4)

Crew Dragon Orbital Flight

Jared Isaacman, who commanded a Crew Dragon for the Inspiration4 orbital mission in 2021, will lead a four-person crew on the first of two Polaris Dawn orbital missions in March. The Crew Dragon will spend five days in a higher than normal orbit that will take it through part of the Van Allen radiation belt. The crew will study the effects of radiation on human health and conduct the first commercial spacewalk.

Polaris Dawn’s crew includes: Sarah Gillis, a lead space operations engineer at SpaceX; Anna Menon, a lead space operations engineer and medical officer at SpaceX; and Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Soyuz MS-20 crew members Alexander Misurkin, Yusaku Maezawa and Yozo Hirano at a post-flight news conference. (Credit: CPK/Roscosmos)

Plans to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and eight people on a six-day trip around the moon aboard SpaceX’s Starship vehicle are less certain. The mission is scheduled for this year, but Starship and its Super Heavy first stage booster haven’t flown yet. A flight test is planned in the months ahead.

Space Station Missions

SpaceX will launch its sixth and seventh crew missions to ISS this year. The Crew-6 mission, which is scheduled to fly on Feb. 19, will include NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi.

Crew-7, which will launch in the Fall, will include NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen of Denmark, Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa. Mogensen will be the first non-American to serve as a pilot of Crew Dragon.

NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry Wilmore during training for the first crewed Starliner flight at the Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Boeing is scheduled to conduct a crewed flight test of its Starliner spacecraft to ISS in April. NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams will pilot Starliner on a week-long mission.

Russia’s plans to fly two crews to ISS are uncertain due to a coolant leak on the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft currently docked to the space station. If the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft is safe to use, then Soyuz MS-23 will launch with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub and American astronaut Loral O’Hara.

If the damaged Soyuz MS-22 is judged to be unsafe, Russia would launch an empty Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft to the station so Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin and American astronaut Frank Rubio can use it to return to Earth.

Roscosmos said it would make a decision this month on a path forward. NASA has said that it has discussed with SpaceX the possibility of using the Crew Dragon docked at the station to return seven astronauts instead of just four.

China is likely to launch two Shenzhou vehicles this year as it rotates three-person crews to and from the nation’s space station. Based on six-month missions, the flights are likely to take place in June and December. Chinese officials have not announced launch dates and crews yet.

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Suborbital Flights

Virgin Galactic’s 18-year long effort to fly paying tourists on suborbital flights could bear fruit later this year. The company has said it plans to conduct two more flight tests of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity in the first quarter. If those tests go well, commercial service will begin in the second quarter, with flights occurring once per month.

VSS Unity has not flown suborbital in 18 months. The spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, VMS Eve, have been undergoing a series of modifications to prepare them for commercial service.

Rival Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft flew 26 people on six suborbital flights between July 20, 2021 and Aug. 4, 2022. The system has been ground since a booster failed in flight on Sept. 12. The New Shepard capsule, which was carrying microgravity experiments instead of people, used an escape rocket to separate from the booster and landed under three parachutes.

There has been no word yet from Blue Origin about the cause of the booster’s failure or when human spaceflights will resume.