Astronauts set to finally return to Earth after 'surreal' first private trip to the ISS

Their journey marked first step towards building commercial space station

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Four history-making astronauts are scheduled to return to Earth on Monday after two weeks on the International Space Station.

A privately owned SpaceX rocket launched the AX-1 astronauts on April 8 for a trip to the orbiting laboratory.

They were supposed to return on April 20, but bad weather at the splashdown zone caused delays.

The journey, organised by space infrastructure company Axiom, was the first US-led private mission to the ISS and marked the first steps towards a commercial space station.

The Axiom space station may replace the ISS after it retires at the end of the decade.

Since arriving at the science lab, the astronauts have been conducting experiments.

The crew includes Ax-1 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, pilot Larry Connor and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy.

The Ax-1 crew alongside government astronauts. Gif: Axiom

“All the experiences have literally been out of this world from the launch, getting into orbit, crossing the hatch into the ISS, going through the ISS to being able to float by this,” Cdr Connor said during a broadcast to Earth.

“All of the things are pretty surreal. The whole experience of looking out the window that they call the cupola and a view of the Earth – they all have been great.”

What did they do in space?

The crew has performed more than 25 science experiments for government and private organisations.

These include the Mayo Clinic, Montreal Children’s Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic and the Ramon Foundation.

Results of these experiments will be used to further the understanding of health and medicine on Earth, advance technologies, and shape the future of space travel.

A series of missions would be carried out by Axiom to prepare for the new space station.

The Ax-1 crew on board the Dragon spacecraft last week, heading to the ISS. Gif: Axiom

A module will be launched this decade which would be attached to the ISS, creating access for researchers, astronauts and tourists.

Once the ISS is retired, Axiom will detach its modules and start operations on its own.

“The Ax-1 mission represents both a culmination of Nasa’s efforts to foster a commercial market in low-Earth orbit and the beginning of an era of space exploration that enables more people to fly on more kinds of missions,” Nasa said on its website.

“This partnership is changing the arc of human space flight history by opening access to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station to more people, more science and more commercial opportunities."

How to watch their return to Earth?

The Dragon spacecraft that is carrying the crew undocked from the space station on Monday, 5.10am, UAE time.

Splashdown is expected at 9.06pm, which will be streamed live on Axiom and Nasa’s website.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 5:59 AM