First all-private crew returns from space station in SpaceX capsule

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The first crew composed entirely of private citizens returned from the International Space Station on Monday after more than two weeks in orbit, splashing down off the coast of Florida in a SpaceX capsule that marked another milestone for commercial spaceflight.

After being repeatedly delayed because of bad weather in the landing area, the mission was another successful effort for SpaceX and the first of what Axiom Space hopes will be a regular cadence of private citizens visiting the orbiting lab. The Houston-based company bought the seats on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, oversaw the training and coordinated the stay on the space station with NASA.

SpaceX’s Sarah Gillis of mission control congratulated the crew by saying: “On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome back to planet Earth.”

For their flights and time on the station, the three crew members paid $55 million each. The crew was composed of Larry Connor, the managing partner of an Ohio real estate group; Mark Pathy, the chief executive of a Canadian investment firm; and Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli Air Force Fighter pilot. They were accompanied by Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who serves as an Axiom vice president and has now been to space five times.

Meet the people who paid $55 million each to visit the space station

While on the station, they conducted a series of science experiments and went to great lengths to be viewed as contributing members of the station instead of wealthy interlopers. Citing his work with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic on research projects aimed at better understanding aging, for example, Connor said before the flight that, “it’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts.”

Unlike the passengers who fly on Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket, and spend a total of about three minutes in space, the Axiom crew trained for between 750 to 1,000 hours and were to conduct more than two dozen science experiments. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, owns The Washington Post.)

While Russia flew several private astronauts to the station over the years, NASA prohibited the practice until 2019 over concerns that private citizens would get in the way. The Axiom-1 flight was the first private mission to the station under NASA’s new policy and it seems to have been well received, as the Axiom crew joined the international coalition of professional astronauts, known as Expedition 67.

“Excited to watch what the #Ax1 Crew accomplishes over the next week, both independently and while working with the Expedition 67 team,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, wrote on Twitter shortly after the launch. “Great things to come from this talented group of astronauts.”

It is a busy time for human spaceflight, which is beginning to operate from the United States with a regular cadence.

Now that the Axiom crew is home, NASA and SpaceX will inspect the spacecraft to make sure it operated normally. If they don’t find any problems, they will move ahead with the launch of Crew-4 — a mission composed of three NASA astronauts and one Italian — to the station early Wednesday.

After they arrive, they would be brought up to speed by the Crew-3 astronauts, who would then fly home in the SpaceX capsule.

Later this year, Axiom is planning another all-private mission to the station. Peggy Whitson, a highly decorated former NASA astronaut, would accompany the crew. So far only one paying customer has been named: John Shoffner, an entrepreneur.

SpaceX is also teaming with Jared Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, for a series of private missions that would fly around the Earth but not stop at the space station. The first of those could also come later this year.

Axiom is also working to develop a private space station that would eventually replace the International Space Station. It has a clearance to dock a module to the ISS by 2024, and hopes to have a free-flying station well before the ISS is to go out of commission. NASA has recently said it hopes to continue to operate the ISS until 2030.

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