WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico late May 30, concluding Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft Freedom safely splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Florida, at 11:05 p.m. Eastern. Recovery crews quickly got the spacecraft on a SpaceX vessel and helped the four-person crew out.
The spacecraft undocked from the ISS 12 hours earlier, concluding an eight-day stay at the station on the Ax-2 mission. The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 May 21 and docked with the station less than 16 hours later.
“That was a phenomenal ride. We really enjoyed all of it,” said Peggy Whitson, the former NASA astronaut and current director of human space flight at Axiom Space who commanded Ax-2, shortly after splashdown. With Ax-2, Whitson extended her record for most time in space by an American astronaut to approximately 675 days.
Joining Whitson on Ax-2 were John Shoffner, a private astronaut who served as pilot for the mission, and two mission specialist astronauts from Saudi Arabia, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. Those two were selected by the Saudi Space Commission in February for the mission under an agreement the commission signed with Axiom Space in September 2022.
The Ax-2 crew had a compressed schedule of activities on the station. The mission was originally scheduled to spend 10 days at the ISS but was shortened to eight to keep a cargo Dragon mission on schedule to launch June 3. The Ax-2 launch had slipped from early May because of delays in a Falcon Heavy launch that used the same Kennedy Space Center launch pad as Ax-2.
The mission, which incorporated lessons learned from the Ax-1 private astronaut mission to the ISS in April 2022, appeared to go smoothly. The crew conducted a set of science and technology demonstration experiments while performing educational outreach activities, particularly for Saudi students.
“It’s been a very busy time up there,” said Kirt Costello, NASA ISS chief scientist, during a May 30 briefing about payloads flying on the next cargo Dragon mission. He said the Ax-2 crew performed 27 experiments while on the station, working with other ISS astronauts. “We are waiting for all the results to come back down,” including samples that were on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Ax-2 was the second of four private astronaut missions Axiom Space currently plans to fly to the ISS as a prelude to installing a series of commercial modules on the ISS. Those modules will eventually separate from the ISS to form the core of a standalone commercial station when the ISS is retired.
The next mission, Ax-3, is planned for no earlier than late this year, also on a Crew Dragon. Axiom Space has not disclosed the crew for that mission but, during the joint Axiom/SpaceX webcast of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, the hosts revealed that Ax-3 will be commanded by Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut who also commanded Ax-1 last year.