Organized by the American company Axiom Space, the first private mission to the International Space Station has been completed.
Three businessmen and a former NASA astronaut landed off Florida on Monday (April 25) aboard a SpaceX capsule after spending 15 days on the International Space Station as part of a private mission.
The capsule and its four passengers touched the sea around noon. 13:00 local time (17:00 GMT) after a dizzying descent. They were slowed down by their entry into the atmosphere, then by huge parachutes. They were then to be recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, off Jacksonville, by a SpaceX ship.
Tens of millions of dollars each
The name Ax-1, this mission organized by the American company Axiom Space was the first completely private to go to the International Space Station (ISS). Axiom bought the vehicle from SpaceX and paid NASA for the use of its station. The four crew members – three customers who paid tens of thousands of millions of dollars each, and former Spanish-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria – took off on April 8 from Florida.
They had arrived at the ISS the next day and were initially only to spend eight days there. But their departure had to be postponed several times last week due to bad weather conditions. They thus finally spent 15 days in the ISS, and 17 in total in orbit.
“Thanks again for all the support during this adventure, which lasted longer and was even more exciting than expected.“had stated Michael Lopez-Alegria, head of the mission, at the time of departure. By his side: American Larry Connor, head of a real estate company, Canadian Mark Pathy, head of an investment company, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe, co-founder of an investment fund. But the four men simply refuse to be seen as “space tourists“.
In fact, they have carried out, they claim, a whole series of experiments on board the ISS in collaboration with research centers and universities. This work has focused on aging or even heart health. Canadian Mark Pathy has also spent a lot of time in the famous observation dome on the ISS to photograph Earth, according to the station’s logbook, published on a NASA blog.
New missions are coming soon
Monday was the fifth landing of a manned Dragon capsule. SpaceX now regularly transports NASA astronauts to the ISS. Seven people currently remain aboard the station: three Americans and a German who arrived thanks to a SpaceX ship (a crew called the Crew-3), as well as three Russians who boarded a Soyuz rocket.
In the coming days, everyone will be joined by four other astronauts (three Americans and one Italian), Crew-4. Once the handover is complete, Crew-3 will once again descend to Earth. Elon Musk’s company also carried out another completely private mission last year (Inspiration4), but this did not go to the space station, the four passengers simply stayed in the capsule for three days.
Space privatization movement
Beginners had already visited the ISS, especially in the 2000s. But they flew aboard the Soyuz, accompanied by cosmonauts in training. Last year, Russia resumed this type of travel and sent a film crew, then a Japanese billionaire. NASA, for its part, is clearly calling for this movement to privatize low-circuit orbits.
On the one hand, it wants to generate revenue thanks to these private missions (another, Ax-2, has already been approved). But above all, after the retirement of the ISS around 2030, NASA no longer wants to have to manage the operation of a space station itself and pass the torch on to private companies. The US agency would then simply hire its services to send its astronauts there, and could thus concentrate on remote exploration.
Axiom Space is one of the most advanced companies to position itself in this niche: they want to launch the first module from its own station in 2024. The structure will first be linked to the ISS before taking its autonomy to secure the relay . The experience gained thanks to Ax-1 thus represented a crucial first step, according to the leaders of Axiom Space, who intended to lay the groundwork for the many future missions.