Private Axiom Space astronauts depart space station ahead of Florida splashdown

Tribune Content Agency

The private Axiom Space astronauts that arrived to the International Space Station eight days ago have climbed aboard their ride home to Earth aiming for a splashdown late Tuesday off the coast of Florida.

Ax-2 mission Commander Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and mission specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi of the Saudi Space Commission spent Memorial Day packing up the Crew Dragon Freedom before taking their seats aboard for Tuesday morning’s hatch closure and departure from the station at 11:05 a.m.

“Axiom 2, it was a pleasure having you on board. We really appreciate all the hard work,” said NASA astronaut and Expedition 69 crew member Stephen Bowen who monitored the undocking. “Congratulations on an outstanding missions. Thank you for all your great generosity. It was really appreciated. I wish you calm seas and calm winds for your splashdown this evening. Take care. Fly safe.”

Dragon will now travel about 12 hours with a targeted water landing at 11:09 p.m. off the coast of Florida in one of seven designated spots in either the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico depending on weather conditions. The prime landing location is near Panama City.

In addition to the crew, the Crew Dragon is bringing back about 300 pounds of cargo and 20 science experiments.

The quartet launched from Kennedy Space Center on May 21 and docked with the ISS less than 16 hours later to begin an eight-day stay on board as part of Axiom Space’s second private mission to the space station. Whitson, a former NASA astronaut and now Axiom Space employee, has been adding onto her American record for most days in space that will surpass 674 days at landing.

They joined the seven crew already on board the station including three NASA astronauts, three Roscosmos cosmonauts and one astronaut from the United Arab Emirates. The 11 took part in a departure ceremony Monday.

“I saw how you worked here. You were so charged for work,” said Expedition 69 commander Sergey Prokopyev. “I hope you had a lot of time enjoying weightlessness and beautiful views from the cupola. My wish is only you safely return to Earth with unforgettable impressions and a desire, this desire to return to space for new adventures and research.”

All four visiting Ax-2 crewmembers held back happy tears while thanking their hosts.

“They welcomed us here with such hospitality and warmth that it’s been somewhat overwhelming, and Frank (Rubio) told me I couldn’t cry,” Whitson said. “They’ve helped us a lot but they’ve also been just so courteous and kind. We felt at home while we were here, and I will be back.”

Shoffner was also gracious to both the station crew and his Ax-2 crewmates.

“I’ve made lots of new friends. If Peggy cries, I cry. I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I want to thank everyone for their extreme patience. To say that learning to go to space is difficult, well being in space is also a challenge for a first-time flyer. I’ve tested the patience of everyone here with my flying skills.”

Alqarni and Barnawi became only the second and third from Saudi Araba in space, and the first on board the space station.

“Thank you to all the crew aboard the International Space Station for your hospitality and generosity. You are such an amazing inspiration and I have learned a lot from you and I’ve enjoyed my time here,” Alqarni said. “I hope in the future we will be back on another trip very soon.”

Barnawi became Saudi Arabia’s first woman in space, and also held back tears with her closing remarks.

“Every story comes to an end and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region so just wanted to thank everyone who helped us,” she said.