SpaceX again waves off return of Axiom crew mission

A view of the Florida peninsula from the International Space Station earlier this month. Credit: NASA

With persistent high winds off the Florida coast, SpaceX on Saturday again waved off the undocking and return to Earth of a Dragon crew capsule from the International Space Station with four private astronauts. The decision delays the Axiom crew’s departure until no earlier than Sunday night, with splashdown Monday afternoon.

The commercial crew flight, managed by a Houston-based company named Axiom Space, launched April 8 on-board SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and docked with the station April 9. The mission is the first all-private flight to the space station, following previous space tourist missions that included a government astronaut as commander.

Their flight was originally scheduled to end with a splashdown off the Florida coast last Tuesday, April 19. But unfavorable weather conditions at SpaceX’s offshore splashdown zones have prevented the mission from returning to Earth.

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s space operations division, tweeted Saturday that the Axiom mission is now scheduled to undock at 8:55 p.m. EDT Sunday (0055 GMT Monday), leading up to splashdown off the coast of Florida around 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) Monday.

Mission managers decided early Saturday to forego an undocking opportunity Saturday evening and a splashdown Sunday, due to high winds at the return location.

SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft docked at the Harmony module on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The all-commercial crew is led by commander Mike López-Alegría, a retired NASA astronaut and now an employee of Axiom Space. López-Alegría is on his fifth space mission, and the Ax-1 mission marks his fourth visit to the space station, following previous launches on NASA’s space shuttles and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Three Axiom customers paid for their rides to the station. Larry Connor is is a native of Ohio, head of a real estate investment firm, and an experienced private pilot. Mark Pathy is an investor and philanthropist from Canada, and Eytan Stibbe is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and a former F-16 fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

The four-man crew has been performing research experiments and conducting education and public outreach events in orbit, alongside several commercial and personal activities.

Officials say the crew has plenty of supplies for an extended stay at the station, but the delays in returning the Axiom mission — designated Ax-1 — have also pushed back the launch of the next NASA crew flight to the space station. SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft is on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, ready for launch with three NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency crew member on the Crew-4 mission, a five-month expedition at the station.

Dragon Freedom needs to dock at the same port on the staton currently occupied by Ax-1’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. And SpaceX and NASA engineers want about two days between the Ax-1 mission’s splashdown and the launch of the Crew-4 mission, allowing time for data reviews.

The Crew-4 launch is now targeted for no earlier than Wednesday at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT). If the Ax-1 mission undocks Sunday and splashes down Monday, the Crew-4 launch is expected to remain scheduled for Wednesday. An additional delay in the Ax-1 mission turn could further push back the Crew-4 launch.

SpaceX has seven splashdown zones for Dragon missions, four in the Gulf of Mexico and three off Florida’s Atlantic coast. The company has two recovery ships it deploys to the Gulf and Atlantic regions for each crew return.

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