The International Space Station turned into a bit of an extended stay hotel for the four Axiom Space private astronauts who finally were able to climb back on board a SpaceX Dragon and make their way safely back to Earth.
The quartet made up of three men who paid $55 million each as well as a former astronaut who is now an Axiom employee flew up to the ISS for what was originally supposed to be a 10-day mission back on April 8. They boarded the spacecraft more than two weeks later on Sunday night and made a textbook landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast near Jacksonville on Monday.
“Welcome back to planet Earth,” said SpaceX mission control’s Sarah Gillis as the scorched capsule bobbed in the ocean. “The Axiom 1 mission marks the beginning of a new paradigm for human spaceflight. We hope you enjoyed the extra few days in space and thanks for choosing to fly with SpaceX.”
Undocking from the ISS took place at 9:10 p.m. 262 miles above the planet traveling 17,500 mph.
“Thanks once again for all the support to this amazing adventure that we’ve had even longer and more exciting than we thought,” said AX-1 Commander Michael López-Alegría to the ISS crew as the spacecraft drifted slowly away from the station’s orbit. “We really appreciate your professionalism and with that we’ll sign off.”
The crew of AX-1 then spent a 16-hour trip home, slowing down to 350 mph after its deborbit burn and re-entry, then slowing further to about 15 mph with all four of Dragon’s parachutes fully deployed allowing for a gentle touchdown in calm seas at 1:06 p.m.
It marked the third time Crew Dragon Endeavour has splashed down having taken the original Demo-2 crew to the ISS in 2020 as well as Crew-2 in 2021.
SpaceX recovery crews were on site immediately, with the capsule hoisted onto the deck of a recovery vessel within a half hour and its four passengers venturing out soon after.
The landing was the first water-based one for veteran astonaut López-Alegría, who served on three space shuttle missions as well as having flown on a Soyuz for a 215-day ISS stint 15 years ago. He led Axiom customers Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe on their adventure. The four will now be transported by helicopter back to Kennedy Space Center. Also back home and KSC-bound is about 200 pounds of cargo, some of it NASA experiments.
The mission, which is the first to fly private space travelers to the ISS from the United States, is also the first all-private mission in that all four members are civilians and the spacecraft they flew up on is owned by SpaceX. It’s the first of four Axiom has contracted with SpaceX to fly to the ISS while the company continues future plans to fly up habitation and research module expansions to connect to the space station.
The four men had a busy schedule for the first week on board participating in 25 experiments and more than a dozen education outreach efforts. The planned eight days on board, though, turned into 15 as weather conditions kept delaying their departure.
They had a departure ceremony with the seven other astronauts and cosmonauts on board that past Tuesday thinking they were headed home mid-week.
“Without their help, support, coaching, mentorship, there’s absolutely no way we would have been able to accomplish this wider range of experiments over the last eight days,” Connor said. “If you ask me, well, what’s the experience been like? Exhilarating and unique.”
Pathy echoed Connor’s statement saying the trip had “been eye opening in so many ways that I think will have such a lasting impact on my life and I think the lives of everybody around me,” he said. “The ISS crew was so instrumental in helping us to achieve all of our scientific objectives, not to mention, greatly contributing to the depth of our personal experiences.”
Their delay in return also meant a delay to the SpaceX Crew-4 launch, which is now slated to taken up a four-person replacement crew of NASA and European Space Agency astronauts from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. That mission is on the clock for a predawn liftoff from Launch Pad 39-A at 3:52 a.m. The Crew-4 astronauts flew into KSC last Monday, but have had to wait for a parking space before liftoff.
The Ax-1 crew is headed home on Crew Dragon Endeavour, which opens up a spot for Crew-4′s Crew Dragon Freedom making its maiden flight. About five days after Crew-4′s arrival t the ISS, the four astronauts of Crew-3 who have been serving as part of the ISS Expedition 67, will return on Crew Dragon Endurance, which has been at the station since November 2021.
The back-and-forth of the SpaceX Dragons won’t be the end of a busy spring for the ISS as SpaceX competitor and fellow Commercial Crew Program provider Boeing is slated to send up an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner to the station on a launch from Cape Canaveral slated for May 19. The Starliner test flight is a redo of a December 2019 attempt that was never able to rendezvous with the ISS.
If successful, a crewed test flight to the ISS could come later this year, and then Boeing and SpaceX will share crew rotation missions.