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Wealthy trio return to Earth after charter trip to space station


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Three wealthy businessmen returned from the International Space Station with their escort of astronauts on Monday, wrapping up an expensive trip that marked NASA’s debut as a B&B host.

Back in a SpaceX capsule, they landed in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida to wrap up a 17-day tour that cost them $55 million each.

The trip was supposed to last just over a week, but bad weather kept visitors in orbit almost twice as long as expected.

“Welcome to planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control said over the radio from Southern California. “We hope you enjoyed the few extra days in space.”

“Amazing mission,” said real estate mogul Larry Connor.

Before departing the space station on Sunday evening, the group thanked its seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose own missions are coming to an end.

It was the first time NASA had opened its space hatches to tourists after avoiding the practice honed over decades by Russia. Last fall, a Russian film crew flew in, followed by a Japanese fashion mogul and his assistant. In each case, an active duty cosmonaut traveled with them.

The latest guests were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut now working for Axiom Space, the Houston company in charge of the flight, making it the first completely private trip to the space station.

After hosting longer than expected, NASA was eager to make room for the next crew. SpaceX will attempt to launch three NASA astronauts and an Italian to the space station on Wednesday. They will replace the three Americans and a German up there since November who will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.

The pace is incredibly fast by NASA standards. “It’s absolutely exciting,” said NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville.

Axiom handled travel logistics for its three paying customers: Connor of Dayton, Ohio; Mark Pathy, Canadian Private Equity CEO; and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe from Tel Aviv. Their chaperone was Michael Lopez-Alegria, an Axiom vice president who flew into space four times while a NASA astronaut.

It was an “incredible adventure we had, even longer and more exciting than we thought,” Lopez-Alegria said after leaving the space station.

Axiom partnered with SpaceX for the journey, which began with an April 8 liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was SpaceX’s second private flight, just months after a billionaire’s orbital jaunt with the contest winners.

In space, visitors experimented and looked at Earth.

“It opened my eyes in so many ways,” Pathy said, “that I think will have such a lasting impact on my life.”

The experience was particularly personal for Stibbe. He served as a fighter pilot under Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Stibbe stole copies of surviving pages from Ramon’s space diary, as well as artwork and music created by Ramon’s children. He celebrated Passover with matzah bread that he took away and gefilte fish offered by the Russians at the station.

Axiom’s second flight is scheduled for early next year as the company plans to have its own space station by 2030.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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