Private astronauts splash down to close out 9-day commercial research mission


SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft floats in the Gulf of Mexico after splashdown Tuesday night. Credit: SpaceX

America’s most experienced space flier and her three private astronaut crewmates undocked from the International Space Station and plunged back to Earth late Tuesday, blazing through the night sky like a fiery shooting star before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

With veteran commander Peggy Whitson and co-pilot John Shoffner monitoring the automated re-entry, flanked on left and right by first-time Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the capsule’s braking rockets fired at 10:14 p.m. EDT, slowing the ship just enough to drop the far side of its orbit into the atmosphere.

Twenty-six minutes later, still moving at nearly five miles per second, the Crew Dragon slammed into the discernible atmosphere heat shield first, enduring temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as it descended along a northwest-to-southeast trajectory across the heartland of America.

Multiple videos were posted on Twitter showing the spacecraft’s eye-catching re-entry from Oklahoma to southern Mississippi, prompting amazement and curiosity about what was causing the spectacular sky show — not surprising, perhaps, given SpaceX did not provide any guidance on the capsule’s path across the United States.

In any case, 12 hours after undocking from the space station and 34 minutes after the deorbit burn, the Crew Dragon’s four main parachutes unfurled, lowering the ship to a gentle splashdown at 11:04 p.m., south of Panama City, Florida.

“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home,” a flight control engineer radioed from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Replied Whitson: “That was a phenomenal ride! We really enjoyed all of it.”

SpaceX crews were stationed nearby by and within minutes, personnel reached the slowly bobbing capsule, on the lookout for propellant leaks or any other safety issues. But the spacecraft was in good shape and the team pressed ahead with hauling the Crew Dragon aboard a recovery ship.

Returning long-duration station crews, readjusting to gravity after months in the weightlessness of space, are carried out of their capsules, placed on stretchers and wheeled into the ship for initial medical checks.

But after just nine days in space, Whitson and her crewmates had no problems climbing out on their own, albeit with assistance from support crews. All four were expected to fly back to the mainland via helicopter before a longer flight back to Houston for debriefing and reunions with family and friends.

The appropriately named Ax-2 mission was the second commercial station visit chartered by Houston-based Axiom Space, which is designing a fully commercial lab complex to provide research opportunities in low-Earth orbit after the International Space Station at the end of the decade.

With NASA’s encouragement, the company is using short-duration private astronaut missions, like Ax-1 last year and now Ax-2, to gain experience and to develop the procedures needed to coordinate activities with multiple space agencies and flight control centers around the world. At the same time, the crews are expected to conduct their own research.

Ax-2 mission commander Peggy Whitson and mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi work with an experiment inside the International Space Station. Credit: Axiom Space

Following launch from the Kennedy Space Center on May 21, Whitson, Shoffner, Alqarni and Barnawi put in long hours carrying out 20 research projects and participating in multiple STEM broadcasts to students across Saudi Arabia to promote interest in math and science.

Despite the complexity of carrying out their agenda in the midst of on-going research by the station’s full-time crew, the Axiom-SpaceX-NASA teams managed to make it all work and all 11 station fliers appeared to enjoy their time together.

“It was a pleasure having you on board,” NASA astronaut Steve Bowen radioed Whitson shortly after undocking. “We really appreciate all the hard work, and congratulations on an outstanding mission. … We wish you calm seas and calm winds for your splashdown this evening. Take care. Fly safe.”

Whitson, 63, is no stranger to grueling timelines in space.

A retired astronaut and now director of human spaceflight for Axiom, she was the most experienced American space flier before she blasted off on her latest mission. At splashdown Tuesday, she had logged 675 days and five hours in space over four flights, moving from tenth to ninth in the world behind eight male cosmonauts.

Crew members for the second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2), left to right: Commander Peggy Whitson, Pilot John Shoffner, and Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. Credits: Axiom Space

During a brief farewell ceremony Monday, she fought back tears as she thanked the station’s full-time crew for their hospitality.

“These guys, they welcomed us on board, and they’ve helped us a lot,” she said. “But they’ve also just been so courteous and kind, and we really appreciate all of that. We felt at home while we were here. Thank you. And I will be back!”

Barnawi also got choked up, saying “every story comes to an end. And this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region. So just like to thank everyone here who has helped us.”

Concluded NASA astronaut Frank Rubio: “many tears of honest joy here, because we’ve had a great team and a great week. So congratulations to the Axiom team. Your crew did an amazing job. Congratulations to SpaceX on a beautiful launch, and what we are sure will be a beautiful recovery.”

As for Whitson’s “I will be back,” Axiom Space plans additional private astronaut missions to the International Space Station and Whitson is one of two flight-eligible astronauts on the company’s payroll. The other is Mike Lopez-Alegria, who commanded Axiom’s first private mission last year.

Both presumably have a shot at visiting the space station again as private citizens.