First fully private astronaut team aboard space station ready for return flight

April 24 (Reuters) – The first fully private team of astronauts sent to the International Space Station (ISS) prepared to leave the orbiting outpost on Sunday for a flight back to Earth, capping a science mission two-week run hailed as a milestone in the spaceflight business.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying the four-man team from Houston-based startup Axiom Space was scheduled to undock from the ISS, orbiting 250 miles (420 km) above Earth, around 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT Monday) to embark on a 16 hour round trip descent.

The Axiom astronauts, dressed in white and black helmeted spacesuits, were locked in the capsule with the station’s hatch closed shortly before 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT), ahead of final uncoupling procedures, a live webcast of The NASA.

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If all goes well, the Dragon capsule, dubbed Endeavour, will parachute into the Atlantic off the coast of Florida on Monday around 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT).

The return flight was postponed for several days due to adverse weather conditions in the splashdown zone, extending the Axiom crew’s stay in orbit well beyond its original departure date earlier this week. last.

The multinational team was led by retired Spanish NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, 63, Axiom’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.

Rounding out the Axe-1 crew were Israeli investor-philanthropist and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both mission specialists .

Launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 8, they spent two weeks aboard the ISS with the space station’s seven regular government-paid crew members: three American astronauts, one German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.

The Axiom quartet became the first fully commercial astronaut team ever launched to the space station, bringing with them equipment for two dozen scientific experiments, biomedical research and technology demonstrations to be conducted in orbit. Read more

Axiom NASA and SpaceX touted the mission as a turning point in the expansion of privately funded space commerce, constituting what industry insiders call the “low Earth orbit economy” or “LEO economy.” abbreviated.

Ax-1 marks the sixth human spaceflight launched by SpaceX in nearly two years, following four NASA astronaut missions to the ISS, as well as the Inspiration 4 flight in September that sent an all-civilian crew into Earth orbit for the first time, but not for the space station.

SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by electric car maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) CEO Elon Musk, has been contracted to fly three more Axiom astronaut missions to the ISS over the next two years. The price of these outings remains high.

Axiom charges customers $50 million to $60 million per seat, according to Mo Islam, head of research for investment firm Republic Capital, which has stakes in Axiom and SpaceX.

Axiom was also selected by NASA in 2020 to build a new commercial addition to the space station, which a 15-nation consortium led by the United States and Russia has operated for more than two decades. Plans call for the Axiom segment to eventually replace the ISS when the rest of the space station is retired around 2030.

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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler

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