The four members of a private space mission return to Earth

(Washington) Three businessmen, accompanied by a former NASA astronaut, landed Monday aboard a SpaceX spacecraft off Florida after spending more than two weeks on the International Space Station.

Posted at 1:31 p.m

Lucie AUBOURG
Media Agency France

The capsule and its four passengers touched the sea around 1 p.m. local time after a dizzying descent. They were slowed down by their entry into the atmosphere and then by huge parachutes. They should then be recovered from the Atlantic off Jacksonville by a SpaceX ship.

This mission, named Ax-1, organized by the American company Axiom Space, was the first fully private mission to go to the International Space Station (ISS). Axiom bought SpaceX’s vehicle and paid NASA to use its station.

The four crew members — three customers, each paying tens of millions of dollars, and former Hispanic-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria — took off from Florida on April 8. They had arrived on the ISS the next day and were initially only supposed to spend eight days there.

But their departure had to be postponed several times last week due to poor weather conditions. They ended up spending 15 days on the ISS and a total of 17 days in orbit.

“Thank you again for all the support during this adventure, which has taken longer and was even more exciting than expected,” said Mission Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria at the time of departure.

At his side: the American Larry Connor, head of a real estate company, the Canadian Mark Pathy, head of an investment company, and the ex-Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe, co-founder of an investment fund.

But the four men refuse to be considered simply “space tourists.”

Indeed, they argue, they have conducted a number of experiments onboard the ISS in collaboration with research centers and universities. This work has focused on aging or even heart health.

Canadian Mark Pathy also spent a lot of time in the ISS’ famous observation dome photographing Earth, according to the station’s log published in a NASA blog.

New missions are coming soon

Monday marked the fifth landing of a manned Dragon capsule. SpaceX now regularly flies NASA astronauts to the ISS.

There are currently seven people left on board the space station: three Americans and one German, who came thanks to a SpaceX ship (a crew called Crew-3), and three Russians, who traveled aboard a Soyuz rocket.

All will be joined by four other astronauts (three Americans and one Italian), Crew-4, in the coming days. Once the handoff is complete, Crew-3 will descend to Earth again.

Elon Musk’s company ran a very private mission last year (Inspiration4), but it didn’t go to the space station, the four passengers just stayed in the capsule for three days.

Beginners had already visited the ISS, particularly in the 2000s, but they flew aboard the Soyuz, accompanied by cosmonauts in the exercise. Last year, Russia resumed this type of travel, sending a film crew, then a Japanese billionaire.

For its part, NASA is clearly encouraging this movement to privatize low orbit. On the one hand, it wants to generate income from these private missions (a second one, Ax-2, has already been approved).

Above all, NASA no longer wants to have to control the operation of a space station itself after the ISS has retired around 2030 and will hand over the torch to private companies. The American agency would then simply shut down its services to send its astronauts there and could thus focus on remote exploration.

Axiom Space is one of the most progressive companies positioning itself in this niche: it aims to launch the first module from its own station in 2024.

The structure will first be connected to the ISS before taking over autonomously.

According to the leaders of Axiom Space, the experience gained thanks to Ax-1 thus represented a crucial first step in laying the foundation for the many missions to come.

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