America’s most experienced spaceflier and her three crew of private astronauts undocked from the International Space Station and plummeted back to Earth late Tuesday, shooting through the night sky like a fiery shooting star before crashing into the Gulf of Mexico.
With veteran commander Peggy Whitson and co-pilot John Shoffner monitoring the automated reentry, flanked left and right by first-time Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the capsule’s decelerating missiles fired at 22:00. :14 p.m. EDT, slowing the ship just enough to drop the other side of its orbit into the atmosphere.
Twenty-six minutes later, still traveling at nearly five miles per second, the Crew Dragon collided first with the atmosphere’s observable heat shield, enduring temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as it descended along a northwest-southeast trajectory through the heart of America.
“Just shot through the air in Tulsa at about 9:55 p.m.,” an observer from Oklahoma tweeted. “Looks like something’s going back into the atmosphere. Pretty neat!”
Multiple videos were posted showing the spacecraft’s striking reentry, sparking surprise and curiosity about the cause of the spectacular air show. For some reason, SpaceX gave no guidance on the capsule’s path across the United States.
Anyway, 12 hours after undocking from the space station and 34 minutes after the discharge burned off, the Crew Dragon’s four main parachutes deployed, causing the ship to crash gently south of Panama City, Florida at 11:04 p.m.
“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home,” a flight control engineer radioed from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Whitson replied, “That was a phenomenal ride! We really enjoyed it.”
SpaceX crews were stationed nearby, and within minutes, crews reached the slowly bobbing capsule, looking for propellant leaks or other safety issues. But the spacecraft was in good condition and the team proceeded to tow the Crew Dragon aboard a recovery ship.
Returning station crews, who have readjusted to gravity after months in the weightlessness of space, are carried from their pods, placed on stretchers, and wheeled onto the ship for initial medical checks.
But after just nine days in space, Whitson and her crew had no problem climbing out on their own, albeit with the help of support crews. All four were expected to fly back to the mainland by helicopter before taking an extended flight back to Houston for debriefing and reunions with family and friends.
The aptly named Ax-2 mission was the second visit to a commercial station by a crew from Houston-based Axiom Space, which is designing a fully commercial laboratory complex to provide research capabilities in low Earth orbit following the international space station at the end of the decade.
With NASA’s encouragement, the company is using short private astronaut missions, such as Ax-1 last year and now
Ax-2, to gain experience and develop the procedures necessary to coordinate activities with multiple space agencies and flight control centers around the world. world. . At the same time, crews are expected to conduct their own investigations.
After launching from the Kennedy Space Center on May 21, Whitson, Shoffner, Alqarni and Barnawi spent long hours conducting 20 research projects and participated in multiple STEM broadcasts to students across Saudi Arabia to foster interest in math and science. promote.
Despite the complexity of executing their agenda amid ongoing research by the station’s full-time crew, the Axiom-SpaceX-NASA teams managed to make it all work, and all 11 station pilots seemed to enjoy their time together.
“It was a pleasure having you on board,” NASA astronaut Steve Bowen radioed Whitson shortly after undocking. “We really appreciate all the hard work, and congratulations on an excellent mission. … We wish you calm seas and calm winds for your landing tonight. Take care. Fly safe.”
Whitson, 63, is no stranger to grueling space timelines.
A retired astronaut and now director of human spaceflight for Axiom, she was the most experienced American spaceflier before she left on her last mission. At splashdown Tuesday, she had logged 675 days and five hours in space over four flights, moving from tenth to ninth in the world behind eight male cosmonauts.
In a short farewell ceremony on Monday, she fought back tears as she thanked the station’s full-time crew for their hospitality.
“These guys welcomed us on board and helped us a lot,” she said. “But they’ve also just been so courteous and friendly, which we all really appreciate. We felt at home while we were here. Thank you. And I’ll be back!”
Barnawi also got choked up saying, “Every story comes to an end. And this is just the beginning of a new era for our country and our region. So I want to thank everyone here who helped us.”
Concluded NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio: “Many tears of honest joy here as we’ve had a great team and a great week. So congratulations to the Axiom team. Your crew did a great job. Congratulations to SpaceX on a wonderful launch, and which we are sure will be a wonderful recovery.”
As for Whitson’s “I will be back,” Axiom Space is planning additional private astronaut missions to the International Space Station, and Whitson is one of two astronauts eligible for flights on the company’s payroll. The other is Mike Lopez-Alegria, who led Axiom’s first private mission last year.
Both presumably have a chance to revisit the space station as a private individual.
Veteran who was once imprisoned for being gay speaks out
Harlan Crow refuses to go into detail about his ties to Clarence Thomas
What role does Congress play in managing political conflict?