Ax-1 disengages from the space station after an extended stay

WASHINGTON – A Crew Dragon was dropped off the International Space Station on April 24 carrying four private astronauts who spent nearly double the time on the station as originally planned.

The Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft dropped off the station at 9.10pm east. The release results in a splashdown off the coast of Florida at 1:06 PM Eastern April 25. Although SpaceX has several potential landing sites to choose from, NASA said the main site is in the Atlantic Ocean off Jacksonville.

“Thank you once again for all the support in this fantastic adventure we have had, even longer and more exciting than we thought,” Michael López-Alegría, commander of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, told the controllers of the space station once the spacecraft left the near ISS shortly after release.

The release marks the final phase of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission, which began with a launch on April 8 on a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center. The mission, the first private astronautic mission of a US spacecraft to the ISS, is commanded by López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, with three clients: Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy.

Endeavor docked at the ISS on April 9 for what was originally billed as an eight-day stay. However, the spacecraft spent more than 15 days at the station, its departure was delayed mainly by bad weather at the landing sites. Neither NASA nor Axiom Space worked out specific weather criteria, such as winds or wave conditions, that prevented a splashdown, other than the “marginally strong winds” that delayed release from April 23 to April 24.

The prolonged stay did not materially affect the station’s operations. “The NASA and Axiom mission planning has prepared for the possibility of spending more time in the station for private astronauts and there are enough provisions for all 11 crew members aboard the space station,” said the agency in a blog post on April 20.

It raised questions, however, as to whether it would cost Axiom and its private astronaut clients more money. “The agreement between NASA and Axiom has allowed for the possibility of extra days,” Axiom spokesman Dakota Orlando told SpaceNews on April 24, but did not answer questions about the details of the agreement.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said on April 24 that the deal included a “fair balance” to cover delays. “Knowing that International Space Station mission objectives such as the recently conducted Russian spacewalk or weather challenges could result in a delayed release, NASA has negotiated the contract with a strategy that does not require reimbursement for further release delays,” he has declared.

The extra time on the station was not wasted. The four private astronauts had “a busy research schedule,” Orlando said, sometimes working 14 hours a day. “With the delay, they have continued to work on these research and awareness projects at a slower pace, with additional time to enjoy the view of the blue planet.”

Prior to the launch, Axiom executives highlighted the research they would be doing on the sightseeing tours offered by the station. “I’m not up there to put my nose on the window. They are really going up there to do meaningful research, “said Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive officer of Axiom Space, in a mission briefing in February.

The release was not affected by an ISS maneuver on April 23. The Progress MS-18 spacecraft docked on the station’s Russian segment fired its thrusters for 10 minutes and 23 seconds to increase the station’s orbit by approximately two kilometers. NASA touted the maneuver as a maneuver that “optimizes the phase for future visiting vehicles arriving at the station,” but was originally described as a maneuver to avoid a piece of debris that is expected to approach the station.

NASA spokesman Gary Jordan said that while air traffic controllers were tracking a potential junction, or close approach, of debris to the station, “the junction has turned green” or no longer posed a threat. “The flight control teams have decided to proceed with a nominal raise,” he said.

The debris in question, Jordan said, was an object with a NORAD ID of 51157, and is one of more than a thousand traced pieces of debris created by the Russian anti-satellite weapons demonstration in November 2021 that destroyed a deceased Russian satellite, Cosmos 1408.

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