Three wealthy businessmen and a former NASA astronaut splash off the coast of Florida on Monday after spending more than two weeks at the International Space Station on a commercial landmark mission.
After turning a blind eye, the SpaceX-Dragon capsule carrying Axiom-1 floated slowly on four massive parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville at 1:06 pm (1706 GMT or 10:36 pm IST).
At speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour) the spacecraft is affectionately known as “toasted marshmallow” because of the scorch marks on its thermal armor that prevent it from re-entering the atmosphere.
The crew was quickly repatriated by a waiting ship, marking the official end of the first complete private mission to the outpost in orbit – and a turning point in the US space agency NASA’s goal of commercializing the spacecraft known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
“We have proven that we can prepare the crew in orbit effectively and productively and we are ready to do it again,” Derek Hasman, director of Axiom space operations, told reporters.
Axiom paid SpaceX for space transport services and NASA for its use of the ISS, but charged $ 55 million (approximately Rs. 421 crores) each to the three businessmen for this exclusive right.
“Welcome home, Axiom-1!” Tweeted NASA Chief Bill Nelson. “All the progress we have seen in the # Ax1 and commercial space sector would not have been possible without NASA’s cooperation with the private industry.”
NASA is looking largely at the private industry to operate in LEO, and is free to focus on exploration missions to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
American real estate tycoon Larry Connor, Canadian financier Mark Pathi, Israeli Impact investor Eaton Stibbe and veteran Spanish-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Algeria were blown up on April 8.
They actually decided to spend only eight days at the space station, but were repeatedly delayed due to bad weather.
In all, crew spent 17 days in orbit, 15 of whom were on the ISS – but Hasman said there were no additional costs to Axiom and its crew due to the delay.
Research, not tourism
Axiom is keen to emphasize that, unlike the recent, eye-catching suborbital flights by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, its mission should not be considered tourism.
At the ISS board, orbiting 250 miles (400 km) above sea level, Quartet conducted research projects, including a MIT technology demonstration of smart tiles forming a robotic group and self-assembling in space construction.
Another experiment is to use cancer stem cells to grow small tumors, to detect early changes in those tumors, and to use the rapid aging environment of microgravity to help improve screening techniques.
Before the voyage, some questioned whether the Ax-1 mission would affect normal work on the ISS, now three Americans, one German and three Russians.
“We have a lot of eyes to see if this mission is practical,” Hasman said, adding that in this case, the fears of disruption proved unfounded.
NASA has already given the green light to the second mission, the Ax-2, Hasman told reporters the crew will be revealed in the coming weeks and the ship will fly for a year from now.
The crew of the SpaceX Dragon capsule landed in the sea on Monday for the fifth time so far.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire founder Elon Musk, is now taking NASA astronauts in and out of space.
Last year, Musk’s company launched another completely private mission to orbit the Earth for three days without affiliation with the ISS.
Axiom sees its missions as the first steps to a great goal: to build its own private space center. The first module will be launched in 2024.
The station is planned to be attached to the ISS first, before being finally flown with autonomy, and the second will retire and be decommissioned shortly thereafter after 2030.