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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three wealthy businessmen and a former NASA astronaut landed off the coast of Florida on Monday after spending more than two weeks aboard the International Space Station, as part of a mission history for the commercial sector.
After a dizzying descent, a SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying the Axiom-1 gently floated towards the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville at 1:06 p.m. (1706 GMT) on four huge parachutes.
The spacecraft was affectionately nicknamed a “toasted marshmallow” because of the scorch marks on its heat shield from re-entering the atmosphere at 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour).
The crew was quickly picked up by a standby ship, marking the official end of the first fully private mission to the orbiting outpost – and a turning point in US space agency NASA’s aim to commercialize the region of space called low earth orbit (LEO).
“We have proven that we can prepare the crew in a way that makes them efficient and productive in orbit, and we are ready to do it again,” Derek Hassmann, chief operating officer of Axiom Space, told reporters during a call for the press.
Axiom Space paid SpaceX for transportation services and NASA for use of the ISS, while charging the three tycoons $55 million each for the privilege.
“Welcome home, Axiom-1!” tweeted NASA chief Bill Nelson. “#Ax1 and all the advancements we’ve seen in the commercial space sector wouldn’t be possible without NASA’s collaboration with private industry.”
NASA is increasingly turning to private industry to manage operations in LEO, leaving itself free to focus on exploration missions to the Moon and possibly Mars.
American real estate magnate Larry Connor, Canadian financier Mark Pathy, Israeli impact investor Eytan Stibbe and veteran Spanish-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria took off on April 8.
They were originally only supposed to spend eight days on the space station, but bad weather forced repeated delays.
In total, the crew spent 17 days in orbit, including 15 on the ISS – but Hassmann said Axiom and its crew did not incur any additional costs due to the delay.
Axiom had been keen to stress that its mission should not be viewed as tourism, unlike recent eye-catching suborbital flights by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Aboard the ISS, which orbits 400 kilometers above sea level, the quartet conducted research projects, including a demonstration of MIT’s smart tile technology that robotically swarms and self- assemble in spatial architecture.
Another experiment involved using cancer stem cells to grow mini-tumors and then taking advantage of the accelerated aging environment of microgravity to identify early changes in these tumors to improve screening methods.
Before the trip, some had wondered whether the Ax-1 mission might impact regular work on the ISS, currently staffed by three Americans, one German and three Russians.
“There were a lot of eyes on this mission just to see if it was practical,” Hassmann said, adding that in this instance, fears of disruption proved unfounded.
NASA has already given the green light to a second mission, Ax-2, with Hassmann telling reporters the crew will be revealed in the coming weeks and the ship should be flying in about a year.
Monday’s sea landing of a crewed SpaceX Dragon capsule was the fifth to date.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, now regularly flies NASA astronauts to and from the space station.
Last year, Musk’s company launched another entirely private mission, which orbited Earth for three days without connecting to the ISS.
Axiom sees his travels as the first steps towards a bigger goal: to build his own private space station. The first module should be launched in 2024.
The station is planned to initially be attached to the ISS, before eventually flying autonomously when the latter retires and is deorbited after 2030.