SpaceX capsule returns to Earth with first all-private space station crew

SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean Monday to end Axiom’s Ax-1 mission. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX crew capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Georgia Monday with a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy businessmen, closing out an extended 17-day mission on the first fully commercial, non-government visit to the International Space Station.

Protected by a thermal shield, the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft plunged back into the atmosphere and withstood a scorching hot re-entry over the southeastern United States. Two drogue parachutes opened up, and then four main chutes unfurled to slow the capsule for a relatively gentle splashdown at 1:06 p.m. EDT (1706 GMT) Monday in rolling seas northeast of Jacksonville, Florida.

The splashdown capped 17 days in orbit for the four-man crew, led by commander Michael López-Alegría, a retired NASA astronaut and now an employee of Axiom Space, the Houston-based company that managed the mission.

López-Alegría was joined on the flight by Larry Connor, an investor and accomplished aerobatic pilot from Ohio, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, and Israeli entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe, who became the second person from Israel to fly in space. Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe paid for their rides to orbit.

“Dragon, SpaceX, we see splashdown and mains (parachutes) cut,” radioed Sarah Gillis, SpaceX’s crew operations resource engineer, from the company’s mission control center in Hawthorne, California.

“We concur,” replied López-Alegría, who returned from his fifth mission to space, totaling 275 days in orbit. He has now launched on three different types of vehicles — NASA’s space shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, and SpaceX’s Dragon ferry ship.

“On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome back to planet Earth,” Gillis said. “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 SpaceX.”

López-Alegría said the crew was feeling well as the capsule bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean. After teams on fast boats secured the parachutes and inspected the Dragon capsule, SpaceX’s recovery ship “Megan,” named for NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, pulled alongside the spacecraft and lifted it from the sea.

The recovery team then opened the hatch and helped each crew member from the spacecraft. All four stood and smiled, flashing a thumbs-up and walking — albeit wobbly and with assistance — to a medical evaluation room on the recovery ship.

While readjusting to gravity, private astronauts were expected to fly by helicopter back to shore, then travel to Orlando for more medical checks and to meet their families.

Axiom contracted with NASA and SpaceX for the all-private crew mission to the space station. NASA charged Axiom a daily rate for access to the station’s life support system, communications network, and other equipment. NASA is paying some of that back to Axiom in exchange for the return of government freezers and experiment specimens on the Dragon spacecraft.

Axiom paid SpaceX for the ride to and from the station on the Dragon spacecraft, and the launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.

The arrangement is the first of its kind. Previous visits by private astronauts, or “space tourists,” to the space station occurred on government-led missions on Russian Soyuz spaceships. Before Axiom’s flight, 11 people had traveled to the space station as paying passengers on Soyuz missions, but they all flew with a government cosmonaut commander.

More Axiom missions are planned to the station in the next few years, leading up to delivery of the company’s own commercial module to the orbiting complex. That module will eventually detach from the International Space Station and become the centerpiece for Axiom’s privately-owned multi-element outpost in low Earth orbit.

“Without those two partners, none of this would be possible,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s operations director, referring to NASA And SpaceX. “So just an amazing first step that’s leading up to our launch and activation of the Axiom station with the first module being planned for 2024.

“I would say, overall, this has been just an amazing success,” Hassmann told reporters Monday afternoon. “The crew performed beyond expectations. The ground teams were tremendous.”

The re-entry and splashdown Monday came about 16 hours after SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft undocked from the space station. The capsule backed away from the complex at 9:10 p.m. EDT Sunday (0110 GMT Monday).

The Axiom mission, known as Ax-1, was supposed to last 10 days, with the crew spending eight days at the space station. The mission was extended one day because of timing conflict between the planned undocking of the Ax-1 mission and a previously-scheduled Russian spacewalk.

Then persistent high winds in all seven SpaceX’s splashdown zones near Florida kept the crew aloft through last week and the weekend. Mission managers were finally satisfied that conditions would be favorable for a return Monday, and they cleared Ax-1 to depart the station Sunday night.

During their time on the International Space Station, the Ax-1 astronauts brought the crew complement on the research lab up to 11 people, including five Americans, three Russians, one German, one Canadian, and one Israeli occupant. The Ax-1 crew spent the bonus time in orbit finishing up experiments and participating in more outreach events that didn’t fit into the original flight plan, Hassmann said.

Despite nearly doubling their stay at the space staton, the paying passengers didn’t rack up any late checkout fees.

The contact between Axiom and NASA included an “equitable balance” to cover potential delays in the undocking and return of the Ax-1 mission, said Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson.

“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 in a written statement.

“There were no additional costs for any parties based on the extension of the mission,” Hassmann said.

Axiom has not disclosed the price Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe paid for their flight to the space station. But NASA’s inspector general has said a seat on a Dragon mission costs roughly $55 million.

The Ax-1 crew members trained for the mission in Houston and at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The first private astronaut mission is a harbinger of a transition from government-led spaceflight operations in low Earth orbit to a future generation of commercial space stations. NASA wants to help steer the space industry through the transition by providing the International Space Station as a testbed for markets that must be developed before companies can take launch and operate a revenue-earning destination in orbit.

A major goal for the U.S. space agency is to rely on commercial industry to develop the next orbiting outpost to replace the International Space Station. The Biden administration recently signaled it will support an extension of station operations though 2030, but by then the research lab’s oldest elements will have been in space 32 years, more than twice their original design lives.

The fraught relationship between the United States and Russia, the two largest ISS partners, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised concerns about a replacement for the International Space Station.

Aside from Axiom, several other companies have plans to develop commercial space stations. In December, NASA selected Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to advance their concepts for a commercial habitat and research facility in low Earth orbit.

Those companies are developing concepts for a standalone station, while Axiom will initially focus on a commercial add-on to the ISS.

The Ax-1 mission was a stepping stone toward that goal.

During their time in space, the Ax-1 crew worked with 26 science payloads and technology demonstration experiments, according to Hassmann. They also conducted more than 30 public “outreach events” in multiple languages.

The experiments on Ax-1 included investigations into self-assembling technology for future satellites and space habitats, the study cancer stem cells, and the test of a new Japanese air purification device. The crew members also served as experiment subjects for scientists to study how spaceflight affects the human body.

Connor partnered with Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research looking at heart health and brain and spinal tissue. Pathy worked with the Montreal Children’s Hospital, Canadian research universities, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society on technology demonstrations, a sleep study and chronic pain experiment, an eye health investigation, and Earth observations.

Stibbe worked with the Israel Space Agency, the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology, and the Ramon Foundation, an organization established to honor the memory of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut who died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. He also carried with him fragments from Ilan Ramon’s diary that survived the searing heat of re-entry after the fatal breakup of the shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003.

Commander Michael López-Alegría poses with recovery and medical personnel on SpaceX’s capsule retrieval vessel. Credit: SpaceX

The end of the Ax-1 mission clears the way for SpaceX to launch the next crew flight to the space station. Three NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency mission specialist are ready for liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT) Wednesday.

The four-person crew will ride a Falcon 9 rocket and SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft into orbit to begin NASA’s Crew-4 mission. The expedition on the space station is scheduled to last approximately five months.

The launch of the Crew-4 mission was delayed to await the return of the Ax-1 mission. The Dragon Endeavour spaceship was docked to the same port needed for arrival of the Dragon Freedom capsule.

SpaceX engineers will analyze data from the Ax-1 mission to ensure there were no issues that might affect the launch of the Crew-4  flight Wednesday. Managers planned to meet for a launch readiness review early Thursday to formally give the go-ahead for liftoff of the Crew-4 mission.

The Ax-1 mission was SpaceX’s sixth launch to carry people since a Dragon test flight took off in May 2020 with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, ending a nearly nine-year gap in launching astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil.

NASA invested billions of dollars in helping SpaceX develop the human-rated Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX put up its own private funding in a cost-sharing arrangement with the federal government.

Benji Reed, senior director of SpaceX’s human spaceflight programs, said Monday the company’s fleet of four Crew Dragon spaceships could accommodate up to six astronaut missions per year.

“Half a dozen crew flights per year would be great, or more,” Reed said. “And I think we can get to a place where we can sustain that. If there’s a market for it, we can definitely do that.”

Each Dragon capsule has four seats. In the long-term, SpaceX wants to retire the Falcon 9 and Dragon fleets in favor of the next-generation fully reusable Starship rocket, which could carry many more passengers into space. When asked Monday, Reed offered no estimate on when the Starship might be ready to fly people.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.