The SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom carrying the four crew of the Axiom Space Ax-3 mission lands in the Atlantic off the coast of Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom carrying the four crew of the Axiom Space Ax-3 mission lands in the Atlantic off the coast of Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (Axiom Space)

(Tribune News Service) — The four crew members of the Axiom Space Ax-3 mission that launched from Kennedy Space Center last month made a safe return to Earth with a splashdown off the coast of Daytona Beach on Friday morning.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom departed from the International Space Station on Wednesday morning and landed at 8:30 a.m. off the Florida coast after a 47-hour trip home. The ship carried the Ax-3 crew of Axiom chief astronaut and mission commander Michael López-Alegría along with Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and European Space Agency project astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden. The Dragon also brought back 550 pounds of science research and cargo from the ISS.

The return path brought Dragon across Florida with a sonic boom heard over Central Florida before its set of two drogue parachutes slowed the spacecraft down followed by successful deployment of its four main parachutes for an on-time landing amid calm seas.

“On behalf of SpaceX welcome home, thanks for flying SpaceX,” mission command said over coms with López-Alegría replying, “It was our pleasure.”

“All four crew members are feeling well,” he added as teams raced toward the floating Dragon to prepare it for its lift onto the company’s recovery ship named Shannon. The crew was up and out of the spacecraft less than an hour after splashdown, set for medical checks before a helicopter ride back to land.

The quartet launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from KSC on Jan. 18 marking the first of six potential human spaceflight missions on the calendar this year planned from the Space Coast, with SpaceX responsible for five of them.

Their return marks the completion of the 12th human spaceflight by SpaceX, which launched its first Crew Dragon in May 2020. It has since taken up 46 passengers to space across its fleet of four spacecraft. López-Alegría takes up two of those 46 slots as he became the first repeat flyer having also flown on the first mission for Axiom Space.

Most of SpaceX flights are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to rotate four astronauts to the ISS every six months. After the first test flight Demo-2, it has since flown up seven of those missions. Axiom Space flights are private missions to the ISS for which SpaceX acts like an Uber. Axiom pays SpaceX for launch service and NASA for the stay on the ISS.

The Ax-3 crew is the first all-European private crew as López-Alegría has both U.S. and Spanish citizenship. They spent more than 18 days on board the ISS having been delayed from their originally planned departure last weekend because of bad weather over Florida. The crew spent more than 21 days total in space.

López-Alegría completes his sixth trip in space having flown four missions for NASA and now two with Axiom Space. For the three customers, it was their first orbital trip in space although Villadei also flew a short suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic last year. Gezeravcı became the first astronaut for Turkey.

SpaceX’s next human spaceflight is coming up as early as Feb. 22 with the launch from KSC of the Crew-8 mission to relieve Crew-7, which has been on board the ISS since August.

SpaceX has another crew rotation mission as early as August and another Axiom Space mission in October as well as the private Polaris Dawn mission that won’t visit the ISS but send up billionaire Jared Issacman and three others on an orbital mission that will feature the first commercial tethered spacewalk. That flight is targeted for this summer.

The other human spaceflight planned this year not from SpaceX will be the first test flight with passengers on board for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, part of Boeing’s efforts to catch up to SpaceX and be able to take part in the Commercial Crew Program rotational missions. That flight is slated for April.

©2024 Orlando Sentinel.


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