First Turkish astronaut travels into space

Screengrab from Axiom's live footage of the launch on January 18, 2024

Three… two… one… ignition! Forty-four-year-old Alper Gezeravci is first ever Turkish astronaut to travel into space. Joining Swedish, Italian and Spanish astronauts aboard an AX-3 shuttle provided by the private Axiom Space company, the crew left Earth on January 18, at 4.49 p.m. Eastern Time. This is the company's third flight under a partnership with NASA. The mission, originally scheduled to lift off on January 17 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was postponed by 24 hours, to allow for additional systems checks:

Following the delay, the rocket was successfully launched at the scheduled time. The crew did its first check-in after the launch, with the Ax-3 Commander Michael Lopes-Alegria confirming the crew was doing well.

Axiom executed its first all-civilian astronaut commercial spaceflight in April 2022. On its website, the company proudly notes, it offers its customers “the ability traverse the sublime reach of space and fulfill personal goals of philosophical, philanthropic, scientific, or commercial nature — and help open a new chapter in human history.”

The crew is now scheduled to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) on January 20, after a journey of 34 hours and 20 minutes, and will spend two weeks aboard the ISS conducting scientific research and experiments. According to, “much of the research conducted by the Ax-3 crew will focus on the effects of long-term spaceflight and the effects of microgravity on the human body, with an emphasis on how that research can have beneficial applications down on Earth.”

Axiom's previous spaceflights transported wealthy businessmen and investors, as well as astronauts sponsored by their governments. This flight however, is the first where all four seats were purchased by a government or national space agency according to CNN reporting.

Alper Gezeravci was first introduced to the public ahead of general elections in May 2023. Turkey's first man to travel into the space holds degrees from the Air Force Academy in Istanbul, and the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio. A fighter pilot, Gezeravci served in the Turkish Air Force and has 15 years of flying experience.

When the National Space Program was unveiled, Gezeravci was among 36,000 people who applied for the program according to reporting by Gazete Duvar.

Turkey's space odyssey: A costly affair

Turkey started its space agency in 2018. In 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled plans to land on the moon by 2023. “The first rough landing will be made on the moon with our national and authentic hybrid rocket that shall be launched into orbit in the end of 2023 through international cooperation,” Erdoğan said at the time. That did not happen, and the timeline was later pushed to 2026, but it also did not stop the country's president from unveiling a plan to have its citizens serve aboard the ISS in May 2022. The same year, Turkey signed a deal with Axiom Space to send a Turkish astronaut to space in 2023, to coincide with its centenary celebrations.

But getting a seat at the exclusive table of ISS guest countries comes at a high cost. At an average nightly rate of about USD 35,000 (a price derived from what NASA charges companies like Axiom) the total trip costs USD 55 million per person according to some estimates. Axiom itself does not disclose the exact cost. But, in the past the company did confirm that the total price tag for a seat aboard the ship tallies to USD 55 million. This is how much Axiom is reportedly paying SpaceX to use its space capsule Crew Dragon and the launch rocket Falcon 9.

At a time when the country is battling the cost of living crisis, high inflation, and a depreciating national currency, some questioned the government's decision to send Gezeravci into space in the first place. Economist Mahvi Egilmez wrote that an investment of such proportions wont yield any returns for Turkey, sacrificing instead “far more useful investments.”

Turkey is also headed towards local elections scheduled for March 31. The likelihood of this mission being used as a political campaign tool for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is very high, explained journalist Nevsin Mengu. Others, like journalist Fatih Altayli, hoped that Gezeravci's all expenses paid trip to the space bears more fruit scientifically and does not just turn into a political propaganda tool in the hands of the ruling government.

It may be a little late to hope for that however.

In a video address shared on X (formerly Twitter) President Erdoğan congratulated the nation on this historical day. “My dear nation, we are all witnessing a historical moment together. We are living one of the times when our common pride reaches its peak,” he said. President Erdogan also said that the mission should serve as an inspiration to “our young people who look at the horizon with the sparkle in their eyes.” Earlier, when the government rolled up its sleeves and announced the program, speaking to DW, Turkish Space Agency board member Lokman Kuzu said the main purpose of the project was to create opportunities to keep young people, engineers, and scientists in Turkey and reduce brain drain.

But a space program may not be enough to keep the youth motivated in Turkey amid deepening divisions between conservatives and secularists, interventions into the education system, restrictions on culture and art to name a few. According to a survey published in June 2023 by German political foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) some 63 percent of surveyed youth indicated an interest in moving and living abroad if given the opportunity. “The primary motivation behind the desire to live in another country, cited by 47.8% of respondents, is the prospect of improved living conditions. The second most significant reason, identified by 20.7% of participants, is the belief that these countries offer more freedom,” concluded the report. Another study on the well-being of youth in Turkey, published in April 2023, cited financial difficulties, lack of employment opportunities and better education as some of the main reasons that keep youth unhappy.

Gezeravci is more hopeful than the disheartened Turkish youth. In an interview with state news agency Anadolu, Gezeravci said, his journey is “just the beginning,” of a wide path to open for future generations in Turkey.

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