Rich trio back on Earth after space trip
Three wealthy businessmen returned from the International Space Station on Monday with their astronaut escort, capping off an expensive journey that marked NASA’s debut as a B&B host.
Flying back in a SpaceX capsule, they plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida to conclude a 17-day tour that cost them 55 million dollars each ($A77 million).
The journey was supposed to take just over a week, but changeable weather meant visitors stayed in orbit for nearly twice as long as intended.
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Before leaving the space station Sunday night, the group thanked their seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose mission is nearing its end.
It was the first time NASA opened its space hatches to tourists after avoiding the practice perfected by Russia over the decades. Last fall, a Russian film crew flew in, followed by a Japanese fashion magnate and his assistant. In any case, an active cosmonaut traveled with them.
The final guests were joined by a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space, the Houston-based company responsible for the flight, making it the first completely private trip to the space station.
After hosting for longer than expected, NASA was eager to make way for the next crew. SpaceX will attempt to launch three NASA astronauts and one Italian to the space station on Wednesday. They will replace the three Americans and a German who have been there since November and will return to Earth in their SpaceX capsule.
The pace is blazing fast by NASA standards. “It’s absolutely exciting,” said NASA flight director Zeb Scoville.
Axiom handled the trip’s logistics for its three paying customers: US real estate mogul Larry Connor, Canadian private equity CEO Mark Pathy, and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe of Tel Aviv. Their chaperone was Michael Lopez-Alegria, an Axiom vice president who flew to space four times as a NASA astronaut.
Lopez-Alegria said it was a “great adventure we’ve had, even longer and more exciting than we thought.”
Axiom teamed up with SpaceX for the journey that began with an April 8 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was SpaceX’s second private flight, just months after a billionaire’s orbital foray with competition winners.
While in space, the visitors conducted experiments and peered back down to Earth.
“It’s been an eye opener in so many ways,” Pathy said, “that I think it will have such a lasting impact on my life.”
The experience was mostly personal for Stibbe. He served as a fighter pilot under Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut to die aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Stibbe flew copies of Ramon’s space diary’s leftover pages, as well as work and music created by Ramon’s children. He celebrated Passover with matzah bread he took and gefilte fish offered by the Russians at the station.
Axiom’s second flight is scheduled for early next year, and asthe company looks to have its e-station in 2030.