Updated 3 p.m. Eastern with comments.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down off the Florida coast Feb. 9, wrapping up a three-week private astronaut mission to the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft Freedom splashed down at 8:30 a.m. Eastern off the coast from Daytona Beach, Florida, concluding the Ax-3 mission for Axiom Space. The spacecraft’s reentry and descent went as planned, from a deorbit burn by the spacecraft to deployment of drogue and main parachutes.
The Ax-3 mission lifted off Jan. 18 on a Falcon 9. It was commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who also commanded Ax-1 in 2022. Walter Villadei, an Italian Air Force officer, was pilot. Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and Marcus Wandt of Sweden served as mission specialists, with Wandt representing the European Space Agency as its first short-term “project” astronaut. The four conducted research and outreach activities during their more than two weeks on the station.
Poor weather extended the Ax-3 mission by nearly a week. Freedom was scheduled to undock from the ISS early Feb. 3, splashing down later that day. However, unfavorable conditions at splashdown sites delayed the undocking several days. The spacecraft departed the station Feb. 7, setting up an unusually long two-day transit back to Earth.
The splashdown wrapped up Axiom Space’s third private astronaut mission to the ISS. The company is using the flights to gain spaceflight experience ahead of installing a series of commercial modules on the ISS that will later serve as the core of a standalone space station once the ISS is retired. Axiom’s next mission, Ax-4, is planned for no earlier than this fall.
“The success of these missions is an important step along our journey toward Axiom Station, underscoring our continuous efforts to expand access to low Earth orbit,” said Michael Suffredini, chief executive of Axiom Space, in a statement after splashdown.
It was also, for ESA, a demonstration of how the agency, working with individual member states, can enable new ways to fly European astronauts as the agency starts planning for a post-ISS future. ESA, Axiom and the Swedish space agency signed an agreement in April 2023 to enable the flight.
“Marcus’s fast-track mission as an ESA project astronaut showed that through ESA, Europe can be agile and flexible and ready to join a changing human spaceflight landscape,” Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, said in a statement. “This mission of firsts diversified our access to space, accelerated important science and research and helped gain experience with new partners.”
The Ax-3 mission was also the first crewed launch this year by SpaceX. During the company’s webcast of the capsule’s splashdown, SpaceX noted it is planning five or six crewed missions this year. That would include Ax-3 and Ax-4 as well as the Crew-8 mission for NASA, scheduled for as soon as Feb. 22, and Crew-9 in August.
Polaris Dawn, a private mission that will not go to the ISS, is now expected to launch no sooner than this summer. That mission, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who led the Inspiration4 private mission in 2021, is intended to perform the first spacewalk from a Crew Dragon spacecraft using spacesuits being developed by SpaceX.