The first entirely private team of astronauts to fly aboard the International Space Station – which included Canadian Mark Pathy – stranded safely in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida on Monday, completing a science mission of two weeks 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-based company behind the mission, Axiom Space, parachuted into the sea after a 16-hour descent from orbit.
The splashdown, broadcast live by a joint Axiom-SpaceX webcast, was originally scheduled for last Wednesday, but the return flight was delayed due to inclement weather.
“Welcome to planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control announced over Southern California. “We hope you enjoyed the few extra days in space.”
The return from orbit followed a dive into Earth’s atmosphere generating frictional heat that raises temperatures surrounding the capsule’s exterior to 1,927°C. Astronaut flight suits are designed to keep them cool when the cabin heats up.
Applause was heard from SpaceX’s flight control center in suburban Los Angeles as parachutes opened above the capsule on the final leg of its descent – slowing its descent to around 15 mph (24 km/h) – and again as the craft touched down in 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 righted itself 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 taken from inside the capsule showed the four crew members strapped into their seats, dressed in their white and black helmeted spacesuits.
SpaceX, the private launch service founded by electric car maker Tesla CEO Elon Musk, provided the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule that carried the Axiom team to and from orbit, controlled the flight and handled splash recovery.
Economics in Low Earth Orbit
Axiom, SpaceX and NASA have touted the occasion as a turning point in the expansion of privately funded space commerce, constituting what industry insiders call “the low Earth orbit economy” or “the LEO economy” for short.
The mission’s crew was assembled, outfitted and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a five-year-old Houston-based company led by NASA’s former ISS program manager. Axiom is under contract with NASA to build the first commercial addition and ultimate space station replacement.
The US space agency provided the launch site from its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew while they were aboard the space station. NASA ISS crew members also participated to assist private astronauts when needed.
The multinational Axiom team was led by retired Spanish NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, the company’s vice president of business development. His second-in-command was 72-year-old Larry Connor, a technology entrepreneur and aerobatic aviator from Ohio designated as a mission pilot.
Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, joined as mission specialists.
“It really is a dream come true,” Pathy told CBC News April 14 while in orbit. “Once we get a chance to look out the window, it’s just magical. It’s just indescribable. The feeling you get looking at Earth…and seeing the thin atmosphere around it and the Total darkness everywhere else is really fascinating.”
Connor, Stibbe and Pathy flew as customers of Axiom, which charges between $50 million and $60 million per seat for such flights, according to Mo Islam, head of research for investment firm Republic Capital, which holds holdings. stakes in Axiom and SpaceX.
Launched on April 8, they spent 15 days aboard the space station with the seven regular ISS crew members paid by the government: 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 were 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 program included research on brain health, heart 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 manned 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 to the first time, but not in space. station.
SpaceX has been hired to fly three more Axiom astronaut missions to the ISS over the next two years.