It was Monday morning when the crew of the first totally private expedition to the International Space Station descended from the orbiting laboratory and headed back to the planet.
This was the first time in history that three businesspeople and a former NASA astronaut had spent more than two weeks aboard the International Space Station on a trip arranged by the startup firm Axiom Space.
The SpaceX spacecraft was planned to land in the water off the coast of Florida at about 1:00 pm local time after docking with the International Space Station at 0110 GMT for the return voyage (1700 GMT).
At the time of the mission’s inception, the four men — three of whom paid tens of millions of dollars for the opportunity to participate — were only expected to spend eight days aboard the space station.
However, bad weather on Earth caused them to be delayed on a number of occasions.
Private passengers Larry Connor, a US citizen who owns a real estate company, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, and Israeli former fighter pilot and entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe took off from Florida on April 8 and docked with the International Space Station the following day, according to the space agency.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who maintains dual citizenship in the United States and Spain, is the fourth passenger.
According to a NASA blog, while on board, the guys completed a number of tests in collaboration with Earth-bound research organisations, including studies on heart health and cognitive function in zero gravity.
Pathy spent a significant amount of time in the station’s famed observation cupola, where he photographed the Earth from a distance of 250 miles (400 kilometres).
Known as Ax-1, the mission was named as a homage to Axiom Space, which acted as a form of space travel agency, paying SpaceX for the provision of two-way transportation and NASA for the use of the orbiting facilities.
An Ax-2 mission has already been granted the go-ahead by NASA in principle, and that mission is now under development.
Following the departure of the Ax-1 crew, there were seven people remained aboard the International Space Station: three Americans, one German, and three Russians.
The water touchdown of a manned SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on Monday will be the seventh such landing to take place so far.
NASA astronauts are now being transported to and from the International Space Station on a regular basis by SpaceX, which is owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Musk’s business flew another totally private trip last year, but it only orbited the Earth for three days and did not communicate with the International Space Station.