All-private SpaceX astronaut mission to return home from ISS after nearly week-long delay

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The first fully private mission to the International Space Station is set to complete the final leg of its journey this weekend, capping what turned into a longer-than-expected trip after bad weather kept passengers on the space station. for several more days. .

The mission, called AX-1, was brokered by Houston, Texas-based startup Axiom Space, which books rocket towers, provides all necessary training and coordinates flights to the ISS for anyone can afford it.

The four crew members – Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut turned Axiom employee who commands the mission; Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe; Canadian investor Mark Pathy; and Ohio-based real estate mogul Larry Connor are scheduled to depart the space station aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday at 8:35 p.m. ET. They will spend a day flying freely in orbit before falling back into the atmosphere and parachuting in to land off the coast of Florida around 1:46 p.m. ET on Sunday.

AX-1, which launched on April 8, was originally billed as a 10-day mission, but delays extended the mission by almost a week.

During their first 12 days on the space station, the group stuck to a strict schedule, which included approximately 14 hours a day of activities, including scientific research which was designed by various research hospitals, universities, technology companies and more. They have also spent time organizing outreach events via video conference with children and students.

The weather delays then gave them “a bit more time to absorb the remarkable sights of the blue planet and review the tremendous amount of work that was successfully accomplished during the mission,” according to Axiom.

It is not known how much this mission cost. Axiom previously disclosed a price of $55 million per seat for a 10-day trip to the ISS, but the company declined to comment on the financial terms of that specific mission beyond saying at a press conference. last year that the price is in the “tens”. of millions. »

The mission was made possible thanks to very close coordination between Axiom, SpaceX and NASA, since the ISS is funded and operated by the government. And the space agency has revealed some details about the price it charges for the use of its 20-year-old orbiting lab.

For each mission, providing the necessary NASA astronaut support will cost commercial customers $5.2 million, and all mission support and planning that NASA lends will cost an additional $4.8 million. In space, food alone costs about $2,000 per day per person. Getting supplies to and from the space station for a commercial crew costs an additional $88,000 to $164,000 per person per day.

But the extra days the AX-1 crew spends in space due to weather won’t increase their own overall price, according to a NASA statement.

“Knowing that International Space Station mission objectives, such as the recently completed Russian spacewalk or weather challenges, could result in a delayed undocking, NASA negotiated the contract with a strategy that does not require reimbursement for additional undocking delays,” the statement read.

It’s not the first time paying customers or non-astronauts have visited the ISS, as Russia has sold seats on its Soyuz spacecraft to various wealthy thrill seekers in past years.

But AX-1 is the first mission with a crew consisting entirely of private citizens with no active members of a government astronaut corps accompanying them in the capsule during the journey to and from the ISS. It’s also the first time that private citizens have traveled to the ISS aboard a US-made spacecraft.

The mission has sparked a new round of debate over whether people who pay for their trip to space should be called “astronauts”, although it should be noted that a trip to the ISS requires a far greater investment of time and money than taking a brief suborbital ride on a rocket built by companies like Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic.

López-Alegría, a veteran of four space trips between 1995 and 2007 during his time with NASA, had this to say about it: “This mission is very different from what you may have heard about in some recent – especially suborbital – missions. We’re not space tourists. I think space tourism has an important role to play, but that’s not what Axiom is all about.

Although paying customers do not receive astronaut wings from the U.S. government, they did receive the “Universal Astronaut Insignia” – a gold lapel pin recently designed by the Association of Space Explorers, an international group of astronauts from 38 countries. López-Alegría presented Stibbe, Pathy and Connor with their pins during a welcoming ceremony after the group arrived at the space station.

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