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Four European astronauts return to Earth after Axiom Space's Ax-3 commercial mission

In this image from video provided by NASA, the 11 International Space Station crew members representing Expedition 70 (red shirts) and Axiom Space 3 (dark blue suits) crews gather for a farewell ceremony calling down to mission controllers on Earth on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.
NASA via AP
In this image from video provided by NASA, the 11 International Space Station crew members representing Expedition 70 (red shirts) and Axiom Space 3 (dark blue suits) crews gather for a farewell ceremony calling down to mission controllers on Earth on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.

ORLANDO, Fla. — A crew of four is back on Earth after splashing down off Daytona Beach, Fla. Friday morning in the same SpaceX capsule that launched the crew's mission three weeks ago from the Kennedy Space Center.

Their return was delayed several days due to poor weather off Florida's coast. The capsule undocked from the International Space Station Wednesday, over the Pacific Ocean, and spent two days freely flying in orbit before punching through the atmosphere Friday and returning home in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Ax-3 mission to the International Space Station was chartered by Houston-based company Axiom Space. The crew's Dragon capsule launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket January 18.

Ax-3 was commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and now chief astronaut at Axiom. Italian Air Force colonel Walter Villadei piloted the mission, while Turkish Air Force pilot Alper Gezeravcı and European Space Agency astronaut Marcus Wandt from Sweden served as mission specialists.

López-Alegría holds dual citizenship with the United States and Spain, making this the first all-European commercial crew to fly to the space station.

"It's been an incredible, busy and fun-filled two weeks up here," said López-Alegría during a farewell ceremony ahead of the crew's undocking.

Those 18 days at the I.S.S. were spent conducting more than 30 science experiments while in orbit, including investigations from each of the participating countries, along with other research partners across the globe. All four astronauts are also the subjects of ongoing scientific research themselves — data collected before, during and after their flight will improve scientific understanding of the physiological effects of spaceflight on the human body.

Their SpaceX capsule, Freedom, is returning to Earth with more than 550 pounds of science and supplies from the station, including NASA experiments and hardware.

This is the third private space mission for Axiom Space, which is laying the groundwork for future commercial operations in low-Earth orbit. NASA plans to retire the International Space Station in the 2030s and hopes commercial companies will fill the gap for a new platform for orbital research.

"We see these missions as precursors," said Axiom president Matt Ondler. The company has plans for its own space station. "We use these missions to really learn how to work with NASA, how to develop research programs, and how to develop partners for the long term."

Axiom did not disclose the cost of the mission.

The company is working closely with another commercial spaceflight company, SpaceX. Axiom has used SpaceX's crew capsule for each of its missions. This is SpaceX's 12th human spaceflight, which includes both commercial and NASA missions.

SpaceX is preparing for its next human spaceflight to the I.S.S. later this month — a NASA mission carrying three U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut to the space station for a six-month stay. The Crew-8 mission is currently targeting a launch no earlier than February 22.

Copyright 2024 WMFE

Brendan Byrne