Axiom’s First Astronauts Return From International Space Station

Axiom Space’s first crew of private astronauts is back on Earth after a 17-day orbital trip that included a week of bonus time on the International Space Station. The mission ended at 1:06 p.m. ET (5:06 p.m. GMT) today when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria was the commander for the homeward trip, accompanied by three investors who each paid Axiom $55 million for their rides: Ohio real-estate and tech entrepreneur Larry Connor, who served as the mission pilot, plus Canada’s Mark Pathy and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe.

“Welcome back to planet Earth,” SpaceX’s mission control operator Sarah Gillis told the crew. “The Axiom-1 mission marks the beginning of a new paradigm for human spaceflight. We hope you enjoyed the extra few days in space.”

Axiom-1 began on April 8 with the Florida launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The trip was originally supposed to last about 10 days, but concerns about weather in the splashdown zone delayed the descent. Because of the way their fares were structured, Axiom’s customers didn’t have to pay extra for the extension.

Within an hour after splashdown, the Crew Dragon capsule was pulled onto the deck of a recovery ship, and the spacefliers were helped out of their seats to begin the readjustment to Earth’s gravity. Connor said it was an “amazing mission.”

Paying customers have visited the International Space Station before, going all the way back to California investor Dennis Tito’s trip in 2001. But those previous visits were facilitated by Russia and made use of Soyuz capsules, under the command of cosmonauts paid by Russia’s space agency.

This was the first time that an all-commercial crew, led by an astronaut who’s not on a government payroll, flew to and from the station on a U.S.-built spacecraft. (The Inspiration4 Dragon spaceship carried a private-sector crew for an orbital trip last September, but it didn’t visit the space station.)

Axiom’s spacefliers said that they didn’t consider themselves mere tourists, because they had a full agenda for their mission. There were 26 science experiments and technology demonstrations, conducted for organizations including the Mayo Clinic, Montreal Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic and the Ramon Foundation.

The crew tried out self-assembling technology for future space habitats, devices to purify air on space stations, and a “holoportation” technology for two-way virtual reality communication.

Axiom Space astronaut Mark Pathy conducts a two-way holoportation session from the International Space Station, connecting with Canadian astronauts Dave Williams and Joshua Kutryk at NASA Mission Control. (Axiom Space Photo)

The private astronauts also participated in more than 30 outreach events as well as zero-gravity medical research. They’ll take part in post-flight studies to gauge the longer-lasting effects of spaceflight on the human body.

“Axiom Space is incredibly proud of this mission and these astronauts, whose training rigor and commitment to a robust research portfolio set the standard for future private spaceflight,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, said in a news release.

Axiom paid SpaceX to handle the trip to and from the space station, and paid NASA for accommodations on the space station. In an email, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said the contract with Axiom included “an equitable balance to cover Ax-1 for a sufficient number of contingency days.”

“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,” Schierholz said.

Traffic to and from the space station isn’t likely to let up: A fresh foursome of professional astronauts representing NASA and the European Space Agency, is due to lift off aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom on April 27. They’ll join the seven Expedition 67 crew members who said farewell to the Axiom-1 crew on April 24. Soon after the new crew arrives, four of the station’s current residents are expected to return to Earth on yet another Crew Dragon, christened Endurance.

Axiom Space is already gearing up for its next private-astronaut mission, Ax-2, which is expected to occur in late 2022 or early 2023. And the Texas-based company has even bigger plans ahead: It’s building a space module that’s due to be attached to the International Space Station in the 2024 time frame. That module could eventually be repurposed as part of a future orbital outpost called Axiom Station.

“The Ax-1 mission is a pathfinder, showing the value of this new method of access to orbit and progress toward Axiom Station, a next-generation platform in which the benefits and products of life, work and research in space will be available to a greater number of people,” Suffredini said. 

Lead image: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: SpaceX via Axiom Space,