Axiom space astronauts depart the space station for a 2-day ride home to Florida

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The first human spaceflight of the year headed home as the four crew members of the Axiom SpaceX-3 mission boarded the SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom and took off from the International Space Station on Wednesday for a scheduled splashdown on the coast of Florida on Friday morning.

The astronauts spent nearly 18 days after launching from KSC on January 18 and docking at the ISS two days later. On board are Axiom Chief Astronaut and Mission Commander Michael López-Alegria, along with Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, Turkey's Alper Gezeravcı, and Sweden's European Space Agency Project Astronaut Markus Vand.

Departing from the ISS at 9:20 a.m. EST, the roughly 48-hour ride home is set at one of seven locations in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean that have yet to be announced.

„We hope you had a wonderful time on the station,” SpaceX Mission Control said upon takeoff. „We look forward to seeing your smiling faces in person.”

Lopez-Alegría is a former NASA astronaut who completed his sixth trip to space and became the first person to ride back on SpaceX's Dragon and command Axiom's first solo mission to the ISS in 2022.

„To the lovely, loving hosts of Expedition 70… thank you for everything you've done for us. We couldn't have done it without you,” he added in a note directed at NASA astronauts Jasmine Mogbeli and Laurel O'Hara. „There's some peanut butter waiting for you at the forward side airlock entrance. Enjoy.”

The departure reduced the ISS population from 11 to seven, including the four members of Crew-7 that arrived at the ISS last August and the three crew members that flew aboard the Russian Soyuz.

This marks Crew Dragon's 12th manned spaceflight for SpaceX among its four capsules that will carry 45 different passengers into space—46 if you include Lopez-Alegria's two flights. Their ride is the newest of four spacecraft, Crew Dragon Freedom, which will fly for the first time aboard Crew-4 in 2022, followed by Axim Space's second trip to the ISS in 2023, Ax-2.

SpaceX plans four more flights in 2024, with Crew-8 next scheduled to launch on February 22 from KSC's Launch Pad 39-A.

Houston-based Axiom Space is the only private company to have the right to visit the ISS and is set to launch its fourth mission in early October. The missions are a precursor to its plans to send its own modules to dock with the ISS starting in 2026, which will eventually separate and become the independent Axiom station.

On each private flight, a former NASA astronaut-turned-Axiom employee commands the mission with three private clients. The three paid Axiom Space $55 million each for the first mission, but starting with Ax-2, the company moved toward a new base carrying astronauts to pay governments.

Ax-2 had two astronauts from Saudi Arabia, while the mission brought astronauts from Italy, Turkey and Sweden. ESA is one of the space station's partners, along with the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada, but ESA astronaut Wantt marks the first time Axiom has flown a customer that already has traditional access to the ISS, as partner nations also have time. will be limited.

The quartet was supposed to take off from the station and land on Saturday, but bad weather around Florida forced a series of delays, extending the Ax-3 mission an additional 5 1/2 days.

The crew held a departure ceremony Friday with the remaining seven astronauts and astronauts from Expedition 70.

„As they say, all good things must come to an end, it's time to say goodbye,” said Expedition 70 commander and ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen of Denmark. „We want to congratulate them on a great and successful mission. … You were great employees.”

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