Crew Dragon splashes down to end Ax-1 private astronaut mission

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Updated after post-launch briefing.

WASHINGTON — A Crew Dragon spacecraft returned to Earth April 25, ending a 17-day mission that ferried four private astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast from Jacksonville, Florida, at 1:06 p.m. Eastern after a normal reentry. The spacecraft had undocked from the station 16 hours earlier.

Unlike two previous Dragon splashdowns, where one of four main parachutes opened later than the other three, all four parachutes on this spacecraft opened at the same time. NASA and SpaceX had played down any concerns about the delayed parachute opening, saying it may be a normal aerodynamic phenomenon and did not pose a risk to the spacecraft or the people inside.

Endeavour returned to Earth four private astronauts on Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission. Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, commanded the mission. One customer, Larry Connor, served as pilot, while two others, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, were mission specialists.

The four launched April 8 and docked with the station less than 24 hours later for what was planned to be an eight-day stay. However, persistent bad weather at splashdown locations in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico kept Dragon in orbit for an extra week. NASA and Axiom Space said their agreement for the mission incorporated the possibility of such delays, so that Axiom Space was not charged extra for the additional time on the station.

“Here we are at the conclusion of an incredible mission, and I must say the teams exceeded every expectation,” Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Axiom Space, said on the joint Axiom/SpaceX webcast after splashdown. “We could not be more proud of what has just been accomplished.”

“Overall, this has been an amazing success. The crew performed beyond expectations,” said Derek Hassmann, operations director at Axiom Space, in call with reporters after splashdown. The additional time in orbit, he said, allowed the private astronauts to complete a “handful” of experiments they deferred earlier in the mission as well as perform additional outreach events. “Our Ax-1 crew pitched in on the general care and feeding and upkeep of ISS.”

The crew itself went to Orlando, Florida, after being recovered from the capsule. Hassmann said they will spend a few days there for post-flight medical tests and rest before going home.

The departure and return of Ax-1 allows NASA to proceed with the launch of a new set of professional astronauts to the ISS. The Crew-4 mission is scheduled to launch on another Crew Dragon spacecraft, Freedom, April 27 at 3:52 a.m. Eastern. It will deliver the Crew-4 astronauts of Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watson of NASA and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency to the ISS.

The tight turnaround — less than 39 hours between splashdown and the scheduled Crew-4 launch — won’t be an issue, said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. Both SpaceX and NASA were reviewing data from the Ax-1 mission throughout the flight, and he indicated no issues with the spacecraft. “Everything is looking great for our launch of Crew-4.”

Approximately five days after the arrival of Crew-4, the Crew-3 astronauts of Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron of NASA and Matthias Maurer of ESA will return to Earth on another Crew Dragon spacecraft, ending a mission that started with their launch to the station in November 2021.

Ax-1 was the first in a series of private astronaut missions to the station planned by Axiom Space before it installed a private module on the station, scheduled for as soon as 2024. Hassmann said the next mission, Ax-2, was tentatively scheduled for early spring of 2023. The company previously announced that former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command Ax-2 with an Axiom customer, John Shoffner, as pilot.

Axiom has not announced who the other two members of the Ax-2 will be. “I believe you will hear something relatively soon” about those other crew members, he said. “Probably in the next few weeks.”