A private mission launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Thursday.

Unlike previous flights of this type, none of the passengers are wealthy space tourists paying for their own trip to orbit. Instead, three of the crew members are sponsored by their countries: Italy, Sweden and Turkey. For Turkey, the crew member is the country’s first astronaut.

The flight, conducted by Axiom Space of Houston, is part of a new era in which nations will no longer have to build their own rockets and spacecraft to undertake a human spaceflight program. Now they can simply buy trips from a commercial company, almost like buying a plane ticket.

The astronauts were traveling in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a day of delay for additional vehicle checks, the countdown went smoothly and the rocket motors ignited at 4:49 p.m. Eastern Time.

For the European Space Agency and its 22 nations, commercial flights like Axiom’s offer a way to get more Europeans into space and highlight the mix of traditional and commercial space programs.

ESA currently pays 8.3 percent of the costs of the space station and therefore its astronauts receive that fraction of six months’ allowances there. Currently, this corresponds to just four flights between now and the planned retirement of the space station in 2030.

“We don’t have that many flights, so we can’t give an astronaut to each member state,” said Frank De Winne, head of ESA’s astronaut office. “That’s impossible.”

But Marcus Wandt, the Swedish astronaut who will participate in Thursday’s Axiom flight, will arrive at the International Space Station on a commercial flight.

“If Axiom didn’t have this option available, it wouldn’t have happened now,” Wandt said during a press conference last week.

Mr Wandt, a fighter and test pilot, applied to become an ESA astronaut a couple of years ago. Out of 22,500 applicants, he made it to the final round of selections, but was not one of the five chosen by ESA as new full-time astronauts.

However, he was named a “reserve” astronaut. These are unpaid positions, but reserve astronauts are eligible for training and a mission to space if a commercial opportunity arises and their country is willing to pay for the ticket.

“That’s why we created the reserve corps,” De Winne said.

The Ax-3 crew members are not the first government astronauts to pay their way into orbit in this way.

The United Arab Emirates purchased a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2019 for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station for one of its astronauts, Hazzaa Al-Mansoori. Axiom Space arranged a six-month stay at the space station for a second Emirati astronaut, Sultan Alneyadi, in 2023. Saudi Arabia also flew two astronauts to the International Space Station on Axiom’s final flight last year.

In March, Swedish officials learned that Axiom had an empty seat on this private astronaut mission. “If we could make a quick decision, we had a chance to do it,” said Anna Rathsman, director general of the Swedish National Space Agency.

“We realized that this kind of opportunity doesn’t happen very often,” said Mats Persson, Sweden’s minister of higher education, research and space. “And when we get it, we take it.”

Sweden, with financial contributions from the space agency, the Swedish military and companies such as Saab, paid about 450 million Swedish krona, or about $43 million, for Wandt to go to space. That’s less than the $55 million Axiom had initially said in 2018 that it would charge for a seat. (Axiom now refuses to disclose the cost.)

With the agreement in place, Mr. Wandt was promoted from reserve astronaut to project astronaut, a one-year paid position for this mission. The work he will do on the space station includes an experiment that identifies the effects of weightlessness on stem cells and how architectural environments in space affect the physical and mental well-being of astronauts.

Other ESA members have also signed up for future Axiom flights. Similar to Sweden’s agreement for Mr Wandt, Poland has an astronaut, Slawosz Uznanski, who is another of ESA’s reserve astronauts, prepared for a future Axiom flight. The UK Space Agency has also signed an agreement with Axiom to take its astronauts into orbit.

On this flight, the other crew members include Alper Gezeravci, a fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force, and Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force.

As the first Turkish astronaut, Mr. Gezeravci hopes to serve as an inspiration for his country’s future generations.

“This space flight is not a destination of our journey,” he said during the crew’s news conference. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”

Mr. Villadei of Italy, the mission’s pilot, has already been in space, but only for a few minutes. He was one of three members of the Italian Air Force who participated in a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in June last year, conducting various experiments in biomedicine, fluid dynamics and materials science.

Although Italy is also a member of ESA, the trip was organized for Villadei by the Italian Air Force, not the country’s space agency.

Commander of the mission is Michael López-Alegría, former NASA astronaut and now chief astronaut of Axiom. NASA requires that private astronaut missions be led by a former NASA astronaut.

Other nations have also taken a commercial approach to human spaceflight, and the idea is not new.

More than a decade ago, Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in real estate, including the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, planned to launch private stations that would be rented to paying customers, primarily nations, which he called “sovereign customers.” . .”

Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, signed memoranda of understanding with countries including the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia and Great Britain.

Due to delays in the development by other aerospace companies of spacecraft that would carry people to and from space stations, Bigelow’s plans never got off the ground.

Still, Michael Gold, then head of Bigelow Aerospace’s Washington office, said Bigelow’s early efforts helped create space for what Axiom is doing now.

Gold said that at the time, a foreign space tourist would have had to be accompanied by someone from the U.S. Defense Technology Security Administration to ensure the tourist did not gain knowledge of any regulated aerospace technology.

In the end, federal officials decided that was unnecessary.

“That’s a great example of how the early work we did at Bigelow Aerospace pioneered the creation of the ecosystem that Axiom Space and every other company is leveraging today,” said Gold, now chief growth officer at Redwire, a space infrastructure company. .