CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
Three wealthy businessmen returned from the International Space Station with their astronaut escort on Monday, ending an expensive trip that marked NASA’s debut as B&B hosts.
They flew back in a SpaceX capsule and landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast to complete a 17-day tour that cost them $55 million apiece.
The journey was supposed to take just over a week, but adverse weather kept the visitors in orbit almost twice as long as intended.
“Welcome back to planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California. “We hope you enjoyed the few extra days in space.”
“Amazing mission,” said real estate magnate Larry Connor.
Before departing the space station Sunday night, the group thanked their seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose own mission is nearing completion.
It was the first time NASA opened its space hatches to tourists, having eschewed the practice Russia has perfected over the decades. A Russian film crew flew in last fall, followed by a Japanese fashion mogul and his assistant. An active cosmonaut traveled with them.
The youngest guests were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space, the Houston company responsible for the flight, making it the first fully private trip to the space station.
Having hosted longer than expected, NASA was itching to make room for the next crew. SpaceX will attempt to bring three NASA astronauts and one Italian to the space station as early as Wednesday. They will replace the three Americans and one German up there starting in November, who will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.
The pace is lightning fast by NASA standards. SpaceX’s Benji Reed said the company launched its first passengers — a pair of NASA test pilots — two years ago and just completed its first private flight to the space station on the same capsule.
Axiom handled the logistics for the trip for its three paying clients: Connor of Dayton, Ohio; Mark Pathy, CEO of Canadian private equity firm; and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe from Tel Aviv. Her companion was Michael Lopez-Alegria, an Axiom vice president who flew four times as a NASA astronaut.
It was an “amazing adventure that we had, even longer and more exciting than we thought it would be,” Lopez-Alegria said after exiting the space station.
Axiom partnered with SpaceX for the journey, which began with an April 8 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was SpaceX’s second private flight, coming just months after a billionaire’s orbital excursion with winners of the competition.
While in space, visitors performed experiments and looked back at Earth.
“It’s been an eye opener in so many ways,” Pathy said, “that I think it’s going to have such a lasting impact on my life.”
The experience was particularly personal for Stibbe. He served as a fighter pilot under Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Stibbe flew copies of the surviving pages of Ramon’s space journal, as well as artwork and music created by Ramon’s children. He celebrated Passover with matzah bread he took and gefilte fish offered by the station’s Russians.
Axiom’s second flight is scheduled for next spring as the company aims to have its own space station by 2030.
“A lot of eyes were on this mission just to see if it was viable,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s operations director, after the splashdown. “Everyone understood it was possible,” but wondered if amateurs could pull this off with abbreviated training without disturbing the space station crew.
“I think we’ve proven that we can do it,” said Hassmann.
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