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Turkish, Swedish, Italian astronauts blast off on chartered flight

SpaceX rocket is carrying four men from Florida to International Space Station

By Marcia Dunn, Associated Press
Published: January 18, 2024, 4:48pm
3 Photos
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center&rsquo;s Launch Pad 39-A, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Four private astronauts are making a trip to the International Space Station.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Four private astronauts are making a trip to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara) (chris o’meara/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Turkey’s first astronaut, along with a Swede and an Italian, launched Thursday to the International Space Station on a chartered SpaceX flight.

The Falcon rocket blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in late afternoon, carrying the three men, all with military pilot experience and representing their homelands. Their escort on the trip: a retired NASA astronaut who now works for the company that arranged the private flight.

Their capsule should reach the space station on Saturday. They will spend two weeks performing experiments, chatting up schoolchildren and soaking in the views of Earth before returning home.

It’s costing each of the three countries $55 million or more. That’s the rough per-person price for the trip, the third such journey organized by the Houston company Axiom Space with NASA and SpaceX. Russia has been welcoming paid visitors to the space station for more than two decades; NASA didn’t until two years ago.

Turkey’s Alper Gezeravci, a former fighter pilot and captain for Turkish Airlines, is the first person from his country to rocket to space. He noted that Turkey just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and, until now, the nation’s view of the sky has been limited to “that we could see with our bare eyes.”

“Now this mission is opening that curtain all the way,” he told reporters before the flight.

Also flying are Sweden’s Marcus Wandt, a former fighter pilot and test pilot for Swedish Aeroplane Corp. who was chosen in 2022 as a reserve astronaut by the European Space Agency; and Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, who flew to the edge of space last summer with Virgin Galactic.

Among the symbolic items they’re taking up: a Nobel Prize medal from Sweden, fusilli pasta from Italy and tokens of Turkey’s nomadic culture.

With them is Michael Lopez-Alegria, who launched four times as a NASA astronaut before joining Axiom Space and escorting its first chartered flight. He’s the only repeat passenger on a SpaceX Dragon, the capsule that’s been used to ferry astronauts to the space station for NASA since 2020.

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