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Commercial crew departs space station, heads for Monday splashdown

A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying four non-professional astronauts, the first fully commercial, non-government crew to visit the International Space Station, undocked from the outpost Sunday, heading for re-entry and splashdown Monday to close out an extended 17-day mission.

Capsule commander Michael López-Alegría and co-pilot Larry Connor, flanked on the left by Israeli Eytan Stibbe and on the right by Canadian Mark Pathy, undocked from the space station's Harmony module at 9:10 p.m. EDT and slowly backed away.

"Thanks once again for all the support through this amazing adventure that we've had, even longer and more exciting than we thought," López-Alegría radioed ground teams shortly after undocking. "We really appreciate your professionalism. And with that, we'll sign off."

The Ax-1 crew as seen before launch in the seats they'll occupy for landing Monday (left to right): Canadian Mark Pathy, pilot Larry Connor, commander Michael López-Alegría and Israeli Eytan Stibbe. Axiom Space

After spending a final "night" in space, the Crew Dragon fliers planned to monitor an automated nine-minute firing of the spacecraft's braking rockets at 12:16 p.m. Monday, slowing the ship by about 132 mph to drop the far side of the orbit into the atmosphere.

After a half-hour freefall, the Crew Dragon will plunge back into the discernible atmosphere and descend across the heartland of America along a northwest-to-southeast trajectory toward a landing site off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Splashdown is expected at 1:06 p.m.

Landing will come a week later than originally planned thanks to high winds and rough seas in the available splashdown zones and to avoid conflicts with a Russian spacewalk carried out last week. Good weather was expected Monday.

SpaceX landing personnel stationed nearby will be poised to haul the capsule onto a company recovery ship and help the returning station fliers out of the spacecraft for initial medical checks and satellite phone calls home to family and friends. They'll then be flown to shore via helicopter.

Because this is a private charter, NASA will have no on-site role in the recovery.

The Axiom-1 mission is the sixth piloted flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon, the second carrying non-professional astronauts on commercial missions to low-Earth orbit and the first to make a fully commercial visit to the space station.

The mission was carried out with NASA's cooperation and encouragement, part of an agency initiative to spur private-sector utilization of the International Space Station and the eventual development of commercial research stations in Earth orbit.

Unlike wealthy "space tourists" who have previously visited the space station while escorted by Russian cosmonauts, the Ax-1 crew carried out multiple biomedical experiments, technology demonstrations and public outreach, mirroring the sort of work future NASA-sanctioned commercial crews are expected to carry out aboard the space station.

Houston-based Axiom Space paid for the mission, buying the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the crew on April 8 and paying for use of the Crew Dragon and SpaceX training and ground support. The company also paid NASA for space station resources and assistance by the lab's professional crew.

López-Alegría, a former astronaut and Axiom vice president, flew as a company representative while Connor, Pathy and Stibbe paid for their seats. No cost figures were released by Axiom, NASA or the three paying passengers.

Axiom Space plans to launch several "private astronaut missions" as the company develops research and habitation modules that will initially be attached to the International Space Station and then fly on their own as a stand-alone lab complex after the ISS is retired.

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