Rich trio back on Earth after charter trip to space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Three rich businessmen returned from the International Space Station with their astronaut escort on Monday, completing an expensive journey it marked NASA’s debut as a B&B host.

As they flew back in a SpaceX capsule, they splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida to end a 17-day trip that cost them $ 55 million apiece.

The trip was to last a little over a week, but bad weather kept visitors in orbit almost twice as long as expected.

“Welcome back to planet Earth,” said SpaceX Mission Control from Southern California. “We hope you enjoyed the extra few days in the room.”

“Great mission,” said real estate magnate Larry Connor.

Before leaving the space station on Sunday night, the group thanked their seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose own mission is coming to an end.

It was the first time NASA opened its space hatches to tourists after avoiding the practice that Russia has perfected over decades. Last fall, a Russian film crew flew up, followed by a Japanese fashion mogul and his assistant. In each case, an active cosmonaut traveled with them.

The latest guests were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut now working for Axiom Space, the Houston company in charge of the flight, making it the first completely private trip to the space station.

After hosting longer than expected, NASA itched after making room for the next crew. SpaceX will attempt to launch three NASA astronauts and an Italian to the space station as soon as Wednesday. They will replace the three Americans and a German up there since November who will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.

The pace is lightning fast by NASA standards. SpaceX’s Benji Reed said the company launched its first passengers – a pair of NASA test pilots – two years ago and just completed its first private flight with the same capsule.

Axiom handled the logistics of the trip for its three paying customers: Connor from Dayton, Ohio; Canadian Private Equity CEO Mark Pathy; and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe from Tel Aviv. Their chaperone was Michael Lopez-Alegria, an Axiom vice president who flew into space four times while a NASA astronaut.

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It was an “amazing adventure we’ve had, even longer and more exciting than we thought,” Lopez-Alegria said after leaving the space station.

Axiom teamed up with SpaceX for the journey, which began with a launch on April 8 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was SpaceX’s second private flight that came just months after a billionaire’s orbital trip with competition winners.

While in space, visitors performed experiments and looked back at Earth.

“It’s been eye-opening in so many ways,” Pathy said, “that I think will have such a lasting impact on my life.”

The experience was especially personal for Stibbe. He served as a fighter pilot under Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut to die aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.

Stibbe flew copies of the surviving pages of Ramon’s space diary, as well as works of art and music created by Ramon’s children. He celebrated Easter with matzah bread, he picked up, and felted fish offered by the station’s Russians.

Axiom’s second flight is set for next spring, as the company looks forward to having its own space station by 2030.

“There were many eyes on this mission just to see if it was practical,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s operations director, after the splashdown. “Everyone understood that it was possible,” but wondered if amateurs could handle this with shortened training without disturbing the space station crew.

“I think we proved we could do it,” Hassmann said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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