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SpaceX Dragon returns private astronauts to Earth after an extra week in space

Update: A SpaceX Crew Dragon has finally returned Axiom Space’s first crew of four private astronauts to Earth after recovery delays ultimately gave the passengers and extra six days in space, boosting their total trip duration from 10-12 days to 17 days.

In the process, capsule C206 (Endeavour) became the first Crew Dragon to successfully transport astronauts to the International Space Station and back to Earth three times. SpaceX and NASA have already certified each Crew Dragon capsule for five flights – a number that will likely need to expanded within just a year or two. SpaceX is currently scheduled to launch Crew-4 no earlier than (NET) April 27th, Axiom-2 NET Q3 2022, Crew-5 NET October 2022, and Polaris Dawn NET late 2022.

Following extensive weather delays, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) after carrying the first all-private astronaut mission to the orbital outpost.

That private mission – known as Axiom-1 – was originally supposed to head to the ISS in February and, later, late March. For unspecified reasons, apparent issues with processing or Dragon/Falcon refurbishment ultimately pushed Ax-1’s launch to April 8th. Initially, the crew of four astronauts – one former NASA astronaut turned Axiom pilot and three wealthy paying customers – were scheduled to spend around ten days in space and eight days aboard the ISS. At some point before liftoff, that was updated to 12 days in space and 10 days aboard the station.

Shortly before liftoff, NASA’s official schedule had Axiom-1’s undocking and space station departure penciled in for April 19th. On April 19th, NASA, SpaceX, and Axiom decided to waive off the first departure attempt due to weather issues that were apparently impacting all seven of Crew Dragon’s nominal recovery zones – four in the Gulf of Mexico and three in the Atlantic Ocean. On April 20th, the next undocking attempt was pushed to no earlier than April 23rd. On April 23rd, the teams yet again called off the departure.

Finally, at 9:10 pm EDT on April 24th, the heavens apparently aligned and the Axiom-1 crew was able to board Crew Dragon, undock from the ISS, and begin their ~15-hour trip back to Earth. Until splashdown (NET 1pm EDT, April 25th), however, SpaceX and NASA will still be unable to settle with any confidence on a firm launch date for their Crew-4 NASA and ESA astronaut transport mission. Originally scheduled for April 15th, Axiom-1’s delays have pushed the Crew-4 launch to no earlier than (NET) 3:52 am EDT (07:52 UTC) on April 27th – nearly two weeks behind schedule.

Thankfully, that should be no problem for the ISS or Crew-3. Crew Dragon is currently certified to spend up to 210 days in orbit, and NASA had already planned for Crew-3 to return before even the usual six-month stint aboard the space station, so Crew-4 could have slipped well into early June 2022 without much of a problem. Nonetheless, NASA still plans to inspect the Axiom-1 Crew Dragon and analyze all data gathered from the mission to ensure nothing was amiss before giving SpaceX the green light to launch Crew-4.

Due to the current proximity of Axiom-1’s splashdown and Crew-4’s launch, even a minor delay or issue during the post-flight review would likely push Crew-4 to April 28th. With any luck, though, Axiom-1’s recovery and data review will be close to perfect and allow Crew-4 to finally get off the ground on the 27th.

Simultaneously, SpaceX is preparing to launch another batch of Starlink satellites as early as April 29th. If both missions avoid delays, Starlink 4-16 will be the company’s sixth launch in April and 17th launch this year.

SpaceX Dragon returns private astronauts to Earth after an extra week in space
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