Archdeacon: Local businessman, philanthropist will pilot space station flight

MIAMI TWP. — Larry Connor, the founder and CEO of The Connor Group, the Miami Township-based real estate investment firm with over $3 billion in assets, is going to be an astronaut.

Axiom Space, the private aerospace company based in Houston, announced Tuesday morning on Good Morning America that Connor – who is also a well-known philanthropist and an avid, outdoor sports adventurist – will make history when he pilots the first-ever all civilian flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The four-man, multi-national crew is scheduled to launch in the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla. sometime in January of 2022.

The 10-day trip will include eight days on the football field-sized space station that is 250 miles above earth and orbits the planet at 17,000 miles per hour, or once every 90 minutes.

Connor spoke to me at length before appearing today on Good Morning America for the announcement. While admitting this endeavor does require “a leap of faith” for him, he said he’s not nervous about the venture:

“Maybe it hasn’t all sunk in yet, but no, I’m not nervous at all. I’m really enthusiastic about this. I’m very confident we can execute a safe and worthwhile mission.

“I’m fortunate in life that I’ve been able to do a lot of unusual things, things that are difficult and really challenging.”

With a bit of a laugh, he added: “And I think this fits the standard.

“I really do believe space is the last frontier.”

Michael Lopez-Alegria – the former U.S. Navy pilot and retired NASA astronaut, who is now an Axiom vice president, will be the commander of the Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1).

“This is a really important mission, the first, fully private mission to go to such heights in history,” he said.

He said it will help further the commercialization of space and usher in a new era of space exploration.

Lopez-Alegria made four trips to the ISS between 1995 and 2006, spent 257 days in space and completed a NASA-record 10 space walks that took a total of 67 hours, 40 minutes.

Along with Connor, the other crew members will be Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot and current businessman, and Mark Pathy, who runs a privately-owned investment and financing company based in Montréal.

Axiom, which was begun in 2016, is led by several former NASA officials, including its president/CEO and co-founder Michael Suffredini. He served as NASA’s International Space Station program manager from 2005 to 2015.

Beginning in 2024, Axiom – thanks in part to a $140 million NASA contract – will build the first commercial space station. It will attach modules to the aging ISS and eventually will be a stand-alone facility when NASA deorbits the ISS by about 2030.

In the meantime, Axiom plans – per NASA approval – to offer up to two orbital spaceflights per year to private astronauts, including scientists and teachers, wealthy adventurers, filmmakers and astronauts from nations with still-developing space programs.

Connor would not disclose the cost of making the trip: “We’re under a nondisclosure agreement so it’s not something I can talk about.”

The price tag per person has been reported by the Robb Report and the Washington Post to be $55 million.

When we spoke the other day, Lopez-Alegria told me that figure was not off base.

“I think we’ll eventually see launch prices come down and space travel will become more affordable,” he said. “The analogy I like to use is to commercial aviation in the 1920s and ’30s when only the very wealthy could afford it. Now people get on an airplane for almost any reason. We’re not there yet, but that’s the goal and this is the very beginning of it.”

Connor said the cost, the risk and the sacrifices he’ll make between now and the launch are worth it:

“I don’t think this is about me. It’s about what we can do. We’re pioneers. This is a first step so private citizens can travel to space for worthwhile purposes.

“My grandson is 15 years old. One day when he’s 50, if he wants to go to space, it won’t be that unusual of a request. Maybe it won’t be in the reach of everybody yet, but it will be a possibility for a lot of people.”

Connor said he stressed to Axiom and SpaceX: “Hey, I don’t want to go up there and just sit around for eight days. I don’t want to be a spectator.”

His designation as pilot may have come in part because he’s flown 16 different aircraft over the past 14 years, including both his own helicopter and F-5 fighter jet. He’s also won numerous national aerobatic championships.

If all goes well, his piloting duties will consist mostly of monitoring systems, rather than actually flying the craft, he said: “SpaceX, in concert with NASA, has sent autonomous flights to the space station. They had no one on board and went up there and back very successfully.”

Lopez-Alegria agreed, but didn’t downplay their role: “Sometimes things don’t turn out as they’re meant and, if something should go wrong and it can’t be handled automatically through our own systems or with the help of the SpaceX ground team, then we will take control.”

Once at the ISS, Connor hopes to take part in some research projects for both the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic – both of which The Connor Group has had extensive involvements with over the years.

He also will have a special space-to-school connection with the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), which he and his company have often supported, especially during the ongoing, COVID-19 pandemic.

His group offered over $380,000 to buy three months-worth of groceries for DECA students and 165 of their families who haven’t had access to food programs in the outbreak.

The Connor Group also has provided 50 WiFi hotspots to assist students who didn’t have access to internet connections for their virtual learning. The group provided 1,200 hotspots for Dayton Public School students, as well.

Once on the space station, Connor said he plans to talk to DECA students through a video hook-up:

“Maybe in some of those students we can kindle the idea that they can so anything they want to do. Maybe they’ll see space as an endeavor, a career opportunity for them.”

DECA superintendent David Taylor is appreciative of Connor’s efforts:

“I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for our students. It’s not every day a student interacts with somebody in space.

“I think Larry is particularly fond of our school’s mission and he and the Connor Group have been big supporters going back six or seven years.

“For as long as I’ve known Larry, he’s been committed to supporting our community. He’s someone who puts his money, his time and his resources where his mouth is.

“A lot of people in his position would just sit back on their laurels, but he has no interest in doing that. I think it’s cool that he keeps trying to do more and more things.

“I’ve got to say, he certainly lives an interesting life.”

‘Wouldn’t that be a great opportunity’

Connor said he first got the idea of space travel about six years ago:

“I was reading an article about private citizens who had gone to Russia and gone to space. I said, ‘God, wouldn’t that be a great opportunity!’

“I started doing some research then and after a very long and sometimes difficult series of events, I found my way to Axiom.”

That was three years ago and immediately he said, “I knew these guys were the real deal. They had knowledge, experience and they were going about it correctly and safely.”

As he committed to them, they also took time to find out about him.

Lopez-Alegria said he has met Connor on several occasions, including on a visit to his state-of-the-art company headquarters on Springboro Pike:

“I know Larry the best of the three guys. He’s disciplined, organized and very professional. He seems to have built a very tight organization. I’d use the Navy term ‘squared away.’”

Lopez-Alegria admits he changed his attitude over the years about civilian astronauts.

He said back when was making his first flights on the Space Shuttle, he thought like most NASA astronauts did: “I looked at them begrudgingly.”

His fourth trip aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 launched from Kazakhstan in 2006 with a Russian commander, him as the engineer and an Iranian-American “civilian tourist,” Anousheh Ansari, who wrote a web blog during the flight that had millions of online followers across the world.

“That had a pretty dramatic effect and really changed my way of thinking,” he said. “It was the inflection point that led to my post-NASA career.

“What struck me about her blog was that all of a sudden people who wouldn’t normally care about what was going on in space were caring.

“It just opened my eyes that space is for a lot more people than just professionals and governments.”

Connor said “this flight will be watched by everyone” and said Lopez-Alegria has stressed to them their mission must meet or exceed the standards set by all astronauts.

The 71-year-old Connor – who says “age is overrated” and races cars, off-road vehicles and goes white water rafting, diving and mountain climbing around the world – is especially fit from training six days a week in the gym at his company alongside his 27-year-old son, Colin, and under the tutelage of Joe Owens, the University of Dayton assistant athletics director in charge of performance enhancement.

He said he and the other crewmen will begin training one week a month starting in March and then go full time beginning in September. They’ll train in Houston, at SpaceX in California, briefly in Russia and Germany and finally at Cape Canaveral.

Overview effect

Lopez-Alegria said it will take Connor and the others a little time to get used to zero gravity on the ISS:

“It’s a little like a child learning to walk. After a while you get pretty good at it and it becomes super fun.”

One thing that continued to amaze him through all his trips to the ISS was the view out the window of earth.

“That first view is pretty amazing,” he said. “Certainly you’ve seen imagery before and talked to people and kind of know what to expect, but it’s still so unexpected, so powerful that you pinch yourself because it’s so hard to believe you really are there.”

Lopez-Alegria said it’s not only what you see, but how it affects you:

“There are very few people who’ve ever have the privilege of seeing the earth like that. We talk about it all the time. We actually have a term for it – the overview effect.

“It gives you a new appreciation of the world we live in. First of all, you get a pretty big swath of it so you get a good idea how we really are pretty connected.”

He said it really hits you when you look the other way and see the stars and the big expanse and the vacuum: “That is more cold and unwelcoming and the earth is so beautiful. And at the same time you realize it is so fragile.

“That all combines to give you global perspective where you want to engender more brotherhood and friendship. It makes you feel like we should get along better.”

“I would say, when you come back you are changed in a way.”

Long before this trip, Connor has been doing a pretty good job of reaching out to his fellow man.

During the pandemic, he and his company have provided $1.5 million in loans to local small businesses and he gave $1.6 million in a stock market windfall to his workers.

He’s opening a new school in Dayton next year and he led the three-year, $72.6 million renovation project at UD Arena.

But after going to the ISS will he be able to come back home and find another challenge that measures up?

Connor thought for a moment and then smiled:

“Yeah, there actually is something else. But it’s probably something I don’t want to discuss until another 12 or 18 months from now.

“But I will say, in life I’ve never tried to set any limits. And I never thought I couldn’t do something. I’d just see an endeavor or an opportunity and say, ‘Boy, that’s something really interesting. I’d like to give it a go.’”

And that’s why Larry Connor is about to become an astronaut.

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