The first all-private astronaut team ever flown aboard the International Space Station (ISS) safely splashed down in the Atlantic off Florida’s coast yesterday, completing a two-week science mission hailed as a milestone in commercial spaceflight.
The SpaceX crew capsule carrying the four-man team, led by a retired NASA astronaut who is now vice president of the Texas company behind the mission, Axiom Space, parachuted into the sea after a 16-hour descent from orbit.
The splashdown, carried live by a joint Axiom-SpaceX webcast, was originally planned for last Wednesday, but the return flight was delayed due to unfavorable weather.
The return from orbit followed a plunge through Earth’s atmosphere generating frictional heat that sends temperatures surrounding the outside of the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius). The astronauts’ flight suits are designed to keep them cool as the cabin heats up.
Applause was heard from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles as parachutes billowed open above the capsule in the final stage of its descent - slowing its fall to about 15 miles per hour (24 km per hour) - and again as the craft hit the water off the coast of Jacksonville.
A small recovery boat with a three-member team reached the Crew Dragon minutes later to secure the visibly heat scorched craft as it bobbed upright in the ocean. The capsule was hoisted from the sea onto the deck of a larger recovery vessel about 40 minutes later, and the hatch was opened to let the astronauts emerge.
A camera shot from inside the capsule showed the four crew members strapped into their seats, garbed in their helmeted white-and-black spacesuits.
SpaceX, the private launch service founded by Tesla Inc electric carmaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule that carried Axiom’s team to and from orbit, controlled the flight and handled the splashdown recovery.
‘LOW-EARTH ORBIT ECONOMY’
Axiom, SpaceX and NASA have touted the occasion as a turning point in the expansion of privately funded space-based commerce, constituting what industry insiders call the “low-Earth orbit economy,” or “LEO economy” for short.
The mission’s crew was assembled, equipped and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a five-year-old venture based in Houston and headed by NASA’s former ISS program manager. Axiom is under contract with NASA to build the first commercial addition to and ultimate replacement for the space station.
The U.S. space agency furnished the launch site at its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew while they were aboard the space station. NASA’s ISS crew members also pitched in to assist the private astronauts when needed.
The multinational Axiom team was led by Spanish-born retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company’s vice president for business development. His second-in-command was Larry Connor, 72, a technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated the mission pilot.
Joining them as “mission specialists” were investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52.
Connor, Stibbe and Pathy flew as customers of Axiom, which charges $50 million to $60 million per seat for such flights, according to Mo Islam, head of research for the investment firm Republic Capital, which holds stakes in both Axiom and SpaceX.
Launched on April 8, they spent 15 days aboard the space station with the seven regular, government-paid ISS crew members: three American astronauts, a German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.
The ISS has hosted several wealthy space tourists from time to time over the years.
But the Axiom quartet was the first all-commercial team ever welcomed to the space station as working astronauts, bringing with them 25 science and biomedical experiments to conduct in orbit. The package included research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity.
It was the sixth human spaceflight for SpaceX in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the ISS and the “Inspiration 4” flight in September that sent an all-private crew into Earth orbit for the first time, though not to the space station.
SpaceX has been hired to fly three more Axiom astronaut missions to ISS over the next two years. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Gerry Doyle)