Axiom-1: First all-private mission to the ISS returns safely to Earth

After weather delays stranded them in space for the weekend, the crew have splashed down

Jon Kelvey
Monday 25 April 2022 19:29
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Axiom 1 crew left the ISS

Axiom-1, the first all-private mission to the International Space Station, has returned to Earth after several delays, opening a launch window for Nasa’s next ISS mission to launch later in the week.

The Axiom-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down safely in the waters off the coast of Florida just after 1pm EST on Monday. The four private astronauts — Michael López-Alegría, Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, and Eytan Stibbe — arrived on the ISS on 9 April and had been scheduled to return to Earth on Saturday, but bad weather delayed their departure until late Sunday.

Crew-4, meanwhile, Nasa’s next mission of four government astronauts to the ISS, has been delayed multiple times due to the changing launch and return schedules of Axiom-1. But with the safe return of the Axiom-1 crew, Nasa has announced it intends to launch Crew-4 no earlier than 3.52am EST on Wednesday.

Axiom-1 flew to space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, a space mission chartered by US company Axiom Space.

Other than former Nasa astronaut and mission commander López-Alegría, the Axiom-1 crew were paying customers for Axiom Space, with Pathy, Connor, and Stibbe each paying $55m for their flight.

Axiom Space is not just a space tourism company, however. Nasa has contracted Axiom Space to develop a private module for the ISS, and the company hopes to use subsequent flights of private astronauts to help attach that module to the ISS, and then add more modules in coming years.

Eventually, Axiom Space hopes to detach a collection of modules from the ISS to become its own free-flying private space station.

Nasa, meanwhile, plans to get out of the space station business after the ISS is retired in 2030, and the space agency has asked companies like Axiom Space to develop commercial stations where the space agency can lease space.

In the meantime, Nasa is preparing to launch Crew-4, the fourth mission to the ISS through Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program, which contracts with private launch providers to fly astronauts to and from the ISS.

Like Axiom-1, Crew-4 will fly on a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, although Nasa hopes to add an operational Boeing spacecraft called the Starliner to the regular Commercial Crew rotation pending a successful test flight of the Starliner in May.

The Crew-4 mission includes three Nasa astronauts — mission commander Kjell Lindgren, mission pilot Bob Hines, and mission specialist Jessica Watkins — and one European Space Agency astronaut, mission specialist Samantha Cristoforetti. The crew are expected to stay on the ISS for about six months, returning to Earth sometime in the fall of 2022.

Nasa had hoped to launch the Crew-4 mission on Saturday, but the delay in Axiom-1’s departure forced Crew-4 to wait too: There are only two docking ports on the ISS that can accept a Crew Dragon spacecraft, and until Axiom-1 departed, it occupied one port, while the Crew Dragon that flew the Crew-3 mission to the ISS in November, occupied the other.

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