Private Astronaut Team Splashes Down Near Florida After Extended ISS Stay

Private Astronaut Team Splashes Down Near Florida After Extended ISS Stay
The SpaceX Dragon Endeavour carried the astronauts to and from the low-orbit space station. (Image: NASA)

Members of the first all-private ISS astronaut team returned from their stay in low Earth orbit on Monday, parachuting down into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon carrying the four crew members of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission, plus more than 91 kg of science experiments and supplies, departed from the International Space Station on Monday at 11:10 a.m. AEST and landed back on Earth on Tuesday around 3:00 a.m. AEST.

The Axiom Space Ax-1 team arrived at the ISS on Saturday, April 9, and were originally slated to stay for eight nights aboard the orbiting space station. However, due to unfavourable weather delays, they ended up staying nearly twice as long on the ISS. The mission’s return was postponed several times due to “marginally high winds,” according to NASA.

A view of the Crew Dragon during splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.  (Photo: Axiom Space)A view of the Crew Dragon during splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: Axiom Space)

“NASA and Axiom mission planning prepared for the possibility of additional time on station for the private astronauts, and there are sufficient provisions for all 11 crew members aboard the space station,” the space agency wrote in a blog post. Those extra nights spent on the ISS won’t be adding to the private astronauts’ tab, as they were already accounted for in the original cost of the trip.

“Knowing that International Space Station mission objectives like the recently conducted Russian spacewalk or weather challenges could result in a delayed undock, NASA negotiated the contract with a strategy that does not require reimbursement for additional undock delays,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told SpaceNews.

The delay in undocking, however, did push back the launch of NASA’s Crew-4 mission to the ISS. NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, and Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, were scheduled to launch to the space station on a Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday, April 23, but that was pushed to Wednesday, April 27.

The crew made good use of their extra time in orbit. Michael López-Alegría, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe, and Mark Pathy continued working on precious scientific research that they had packed with them to the ISS, including data on astronaut health, a holoportation device, and a space helmet that studies pulses from the brain. Following touchdown back on Earth, the science payload was taken to the nearby Kennedy Space Centre for further investigation.

“The success of this first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station is an important step in opening opportunities for space travellers and achieving NASA’s goal of enabling commercial business off the planet in low Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement released shortly after the Atlantic splashdown.

Axiom signed a deal with SpaceX for three additional all-private astronaut missions to the ISS aboard Crew Dragon. But the space company is keeping the cost of those low-orbit trips confidential, refusing to disclose how much each passenger pays for a seat on the SpaceX Dragon.