An all-European quartet of astronauts, including Turkey’s first, splashed down off the Florida coast on Friday morning, completing Axiom Space’s third private mission to the International Space Station.
The Axiom Mission 3 (Ax-3) was the company’s first launch where all three paid seats were bought by national agencies rather than wealthy individuals.
A live stream showed a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule named “Freedom” float down on parachutes to the Atlantic Ocean, where it was intercepted and brought aboard a recovery boat.
“I am very proud of my Ax-3 crewmates who helped their agencies achieve all of their science objectives, technology demonstrations and outreach events,” Axiom’s Chief Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a Spanish and US citizen and former NASA astronaut said in a farewell ceremony before the crew headed back to Earth.
The mission was initially meant to last two weeks, but the return journey was delayed by several days owing to bad weather, resulting in an 18 day stay on the ISS.
Lopez-Alegria was joined by Turkish pilot and air force colonel Alper Gezeravci, Walter Villadei, an Italian air force colonel who had previously flown to the edge of space on a Virgin Galactic space plane, and Marcus Wandt from Sweden, who was also representing the European Space Agency.
Nations with smaller space programs are increasingly turning to the private sector to fulfill their space ambitions, with Turkey in particular hailing the mission as a sign of its growing stature on the world stage.
The crew carried out 30 experiments, learning more about the impact of microgravity on the human body, advancing industrial processes and more.
Axiom Space was founded in 2016 by Michael Suffredini, a former ISS program manager for NASA, and entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian.
In addition to organizing private missions to the orbital outpost, the company is developing spacesuits for future NASA missions to the Moon.
It is also building a commercial space station that it intends to initially attach to the ISS, then separate and orbit independently sometime before the ISS is retired.
The exact costs of the Ax-3 have not been disclosed, but in 2018 when the company first announced the program, which involves chartering SpaceX hardware and paying NASA for services, it set a price tag of $55 million per seat.
More recently, Hungary was reported by spacenews.com to be planning a $100 million deal with Axiom for a future mission involving one astronaut.
Britain, which is striving to build a post-Brexit space strategy, has also signed an agreement for a future mission carrying UK astronauts.