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America’s most experienced space flier and her three private astronaut crewmates undocked from the International Space Station on Tuesday after a nine-day commercial research mission, setting the stage for a fiery plunge back to Earth and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.
After bidding the station’s seven full-time residents farewell, Crew Dragon commander Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi floated into their SpaceX capsule “Freedom,” closed the hatch and undocked at 11:05 a.m. EDT to begin a 12-hour flight back to Earth.
As the spacecraft slowly backed away, ISS astronaut Steve Bowen radioed a final farewell to Whitson and her crew.
“It was a pleasure having you on board,” he said. “We really appreciate all the hard work, and congratulations on an outstanding mission. … We wish you calm seas and calm winds for your splashdown this evening. Take care. Fly safe.”
If all goes well, Whitson and Shoffner will monitor an automated 12-minute 20-second deorbit rocket firing starting at 10:14 p.m., slowing the ship by just enough to drop the far side of the orbit into the atmosphere for a northwest-to-southeast descent across the heartland of America.
Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico south of Panama City, Florida, is expected at 11:04 p.m. SpaceX recovery crews were positioned nearby to help the returning station fliers out of the Crew Dragon for initial medical checks and a helicopter flight back to the mainland.
The appropriately named Ax-2 mission was the second commercial station visit chartered by Houston-based Axiom Space, which is designing a fully commercial lab complex to provide research opportunities in low-Earth orbit after the International Space Station at the end of the decade.
Since l, Whitson and company have put in long hours carrying out 20 research projects and participating in multiple STEM broadcasts to students across Saudi Arabia to promote interest in math and science.
Whitson, 63, is no stranger to grueling timelines in space.
A retired astronaut and now director of human spaceflight for Axiom, she is the most experienced space flier in the United States. At splashdown, she will have logged 675 days and five hours in space over four flights, moving her from tenth to ninth on the list of world’s most experienced astronauts and cosmonauts.
During a brief farewell ceremony Monday, she fought back tears as she thanked the station’s full-time crew for their hospitality.
“These guys, they welcomed us on board, and they’ve helped us a lot,” she said. “But they’ve also just been so courteous and kind, and we really appreciate all of that. We felt at home while we were here. Thank you. And I will be back!”
Barnawi also got choked up, saying “every story comes to an end. And this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region. So just like to thank everyone here who has helped us.”
Concluded NASA astronaut Frank Rubio: “Many tears of honest joy here, because we’ve had a great team and a great week. So congratulations to the Axiom team. Your crew did an amazing job. Congratulations to SpaceX on a beautiful launch, and what we are sure will be a beautiful recovery.”