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Ax-3 commercial crew undocks from space station, heads for Friday splashdown

Wrapping up the third fully commercial visit to the International Space Station, a four-man crew sponsored by Houston-based Axiom Space undocked from the outpost early Wednesday and settled in for a marathon 47-hour free flight to re-entry and splashdown Friday off the Florida coast.

Strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, commander Michael López-Alegría, Italian co-pilot Walter Villadei, Swedish flier Marcus Wandt and Turkey's Alper Gezeravci undocked from the station's forward port at 9:20 a.m. EST and then monitored a series of autonomous thruster firings to leave the vicinity.

The Crew Dragon "Freedom" backs away from the International Space Station after an 18-day visit. It was the third commercial flight to the lab complex sanctioned by NASA and paid for by Axiom Space. NASA

"We hope you guys had a wonderful time on the station, and we're looking forward to seeing your smiling faces in person," a SpaceX flight controller radioed as the Crew Dragon "Freedom" backed away.

"To our gracious and endearing hosts of Expedition 70 ... thank you for all you did for us, we couldn't have have done it without you," López-Alegría replied. "And Jaws (Jasmin Moghbeli) and Loral (O'Hara), there is some peanut butter waiting for you in the airlock entrance."

López-Alegría was referring to Marine Lt. Col. Moghbeli's call sign during a tour in Afghanistan when she piloted a helicopter gunship.

The Ax-3 crew blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 18 and docked at the lab two days later. They were welcomed aboard by Moghbeli, O'Hara, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen, Japanese flier Satoshi Furukawa and cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and Konstantin Borisov.

A camera on the International Space Station captures a stunning view of the departing Crew Dragon spacecraft against the backdrop of planet Earth. NASA

The Axiom fliers originally planned to return to Earth on Feb. 3 after 14 days of microgravity research and public outreach. But bad weather at splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean triggered multiple departure delays, extending the mission by nearly a week.

Because of the station's orbital parameters and the trajectory the Crew Dragon needs to reach the planned landing site, the Ax-3 crew faced nearly two full days in the relatively cramped confines of their single-cabin ferry ship.

But if all goes well, SpaceX flight controllers will oversee a deorbit rocket firing Friday morning at 7:42 a.m., setting up a splashdown off the east coast of Florida at 8:30 a.m.

A SpaceX team will be standing by to haul the capsule on board a recovery ship. After initial medical checks, the crew will be flown to shore by helicopter.

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