The second crew to be sent into space as a profit-making proposition for Texas-based Axiom Space came back to Earth tonight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule after spending nine days on the International Space Station.
The Ax-2 trip came a year after Axiom’s first crewed space mission, and marked several firsts: Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command a private-sector space mission as Axiom’s director of human spaceflight, and mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi became the first Saudi woman in space.
Tennessee business executive John Shoffner and Saudi fighter pilot Ali Alqarni rounded out the crew. Shoffner paid his own fare, which was thought to amount to tens of millions of dollars, while Barnawi and Alqarni flew with the backing of the Saudi government.
The trip began on May 21 with the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, and ended today with the crew’s departure from the space station and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast.
While crew members waited for a recovery ship to pick up their Dragon capsule, which was dubbed Freedom, Whitson described the descent from orbit as a “phenomenal ride” — the same phrase she used after liftoff.
“We really enjoyed all of it,” she told SpaceX’s Mission Control.
Thanks to her previous space station missions, Whitson holds the U.S. record for cumulative time in space — and while she was aboard the station for the Ax-2 mission, she said “it really does feel like home.”
The Axiom Space crew worked with the station’s seven long-term residents to conduct more than 20 scientific experiments and technological demonstrations during their stint in orbit.
One of the experiments made use of human stem cells cultivated by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Cell Science to study whether microgravity can aid in the mass production of pluripotent stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Follow-up experiments will be conducted during future Axiom missions.
For another experiment, Shoffner tried on a new type of “skinsuit” that could help future astronauts keep more fit in low-gravity environments.
“We’re evaluating the comfort, the fit and our onboard internal sensing. … It was a great run,” said Dava Newman, a former NASA executive who is playing a lead role in the research project as director of the MIT Media Lab.
Axiom Space’s next commercial crew is due to launch as soon as November, and could include the first Turkish astronaut to go to space. Among others have been mentioned as potential future fliers are Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and the winner of a TV contest called “Space Hero.”