The first completely private crew returns from the space station in SpaceX capsule

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The first crew, consisting exclusively of private citizens, returned from the International Space Station on Monday after more than two weeks in orbit, splashing down the coast of Florida in a SpaceX capsule that marked another milestone for commercial spaceflight.

After being repeatedly delayed due to bad weather in the landing area, the mission was yet another successful effort for SpaceX and the first of what Axiom Space hopes will be a regular cadence of private citizens visiting the orbiting lab. The Houston-based company purchased the seats on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, monitored the training and coordinated the stay on the space station with NASA.

SpaceX’s Sarah Gillis from Mission Control congratulated the crew by saying, “On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome back to planet Earth.”

For their flights and time at the station, the three crew members paid $ 55 million each. The crew was composed of Larry Connor, managing partner of an Ohio real estate group; Mark Pathy, CEO of a Canadian investment firm; and Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former fighter pilot from the Israeli Air Force. They were accompanied by Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who serves as Axiom vice president and has now been in space five times.

Meet the people who paid $ 55 million each to visit the space station

While at the station, they performed a series of scientific experiments and went to great lengths to be considered contributing members of the station rather than wealthy invaders. Referring to his work with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects aimed at better understanding aging, Connor said before the flight that “it is important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts.”

Unlike the passengers who fly on Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket and spend a total of about three minutes in space, the Axiom crew trained for between 750 to 1,000 hours and had to perform more than two dozen scientific experiments. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, owns The Washington Post.)

While Russia flew several private astronauts to the station over the years, NASA banned this practice until 2019 due to concerns that private citizens would get in the way. The Axiom-1 flight was the first private mission to the station under NASA’s new policy, and it seems to have been well received when the Axiom crew joined the international coalition of professional astronauts, known as Expedition 67.

“Excited to see what the # Ax1 crew is doing over the next week, both independently and while working with the Expedition 67 team,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Space Operations Mission Directorate, wrote on Twitter shortly after launch. “Good things are coming from this talented group of astronauts.”

It is a busy time for human spaceflight, which is starting to operate from the United States with a regular cadence.

Now that the Axiom crew is home, NASA and SpaceX will inspect the spacecraft to make sure it was operating normally. If they do not find any problems, they will proceed with the launch of Crew-4 – a mission consisting of three NASA astronauts and an Italian – to the station early Wednesday.

Upon arrival, they would be picked up by the Crew-3 astronauts, who would then fly home in the SpaceX capsule.

Later this year, Axiom is planning another private mission to the station. Peggy Whitson, a highly decorated former NASA astronaut, would accompany the crew. So far, only one paying customer has been named: John Shoffner, an entrepreneur.

SpaceX is also collaborating with Jared Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, on a series of private missions that would fly around Earth but not stop at the space station. The first of them could also come later this year.

Axiom is also working on developing a private space station that will eventually replace the international space station. It has a permit to dock a module for the ISS in 2024 and hopes to have a free-flying station in good time before the ISS goes out of service. NASA has recently said it hopes to continue operating the ISS until 2030.

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