Trio back on Earth after charter trip to space station

Three wealthy businessmen have returned from the International Space Station with their astronaut escort, concluding 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 $55m (£43m) each.

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

Before leaving the space station on Sunday evening, the group thanked its seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose own mission is nearing its 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,” NASA flight director Zeb Scoville said.

Axiom took care of the travel logistics for its three paying clients: American real estate magnate Larry Connor; 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 as a NASA astronaut.

Mr Lopez-Alegria said it was “an incredible adventure that we have been on, even longer and more exciting than we thought”.

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,” Mr. Pathy said, “that I think will have such a lasting impact on my life.”

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

Mr. Stibbe stole copies of the surviving pages of Mr. Ramon’s space diary, as well as artwork and music created by Mr. 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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