Crew of first private flight to International Space Station prepare for Earth return

Crew of first private flight to International Space Station prepare for Earth return post thumbnail image

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The crew of the first fully private mission to the International Space Station was set on Sunday (April 24) to leave the orbiting laboratory and head back to Earth.

The three businessmen and a former Nasa astronaut had spent more than two weeks on the station on a history-making mission organised by startup company Axiom Space.

A SpaceX capsule was scheduled to undock from the ISS at 8.55pm (0055 GMT Monday) for the return trip, before landing in the ocean off the coast of Florida on Monday around 1pm (1700 GMT).

The four men – three who paid tens of millions of dollars each for the rare chance to take part in the mission, and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who holds dual US-Spanish citizenship – were originally scheduled to spend only eight days on the space station. But bad weather on Earth forced repeated delays in their return.

Private passengers Larry Connor, an American who heads a real estate company, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy and Israeli former fighter pilot and entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe had blasted off from Florida on April 8, reaching the ISS a day later.

Once on board, they conducted a series of experiments in cooperation with Earth-bound research centres, including on cardiac health and cognitive performance in low gravity, according to a Nasa blog.

Pathy in particular spent considerable time in the station’s famous observation cupola photographing the Earth from 250 miles (400km) overhead.

The mission was dubbed Ax-1 in a nod to Axiom Space, which served as a sort of space travel agency, paying SpaceX for providing two-way transportation and Nasa for the use of the orbiting accommodations.

Nasa has already given the green light, in principle, to a second mission: Ax-2. The departure of the Ax-1 crew will leave seven people on the ISS: three Americans, a German and three Russians.

Monday’s sea landing of a manned Dragon capsule will be the fifth to date.

SpaceX, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, is now regularly ferrying Nasa astronauts to and from the space station.

Last year SpaceX launched another entirely private mission, but it simply orbited the Earth for three days, not linking up with the ISS.

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