HOUSTON – The all-private crew of April’s Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station participated in a discussion Friday morning to recap their experience, taking questions during a live news conference.
Ax-1 Pilot Larry Connor, Commander Michael López-Alegría and Mission Specialists Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe were joined by Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini for the sit-down. The four astronauts comprised the first all-private crew to visit the ISS, making the trip in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule April 8.
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López-Alegría opened for the group after their introductions, highlighting the importance of what the mission meant for the future of commercial human spaceflight.
“For the longest time, it’s been only government astronauts going to space, and of course, this is the first all-private mission to the International Space Station, and we’re very, (we) feel very privileged to have participated in that,” López-Alegría said.
Connor tried his best, when asked by López-Alegría, to describe what is was like to see the Earth from the space station’s over 250-mile high vantage point.
“Spectacular,” Connor said. “You know, you can try to explain it to people, you can see photographs, but until you have the opportunity to do it, you can’t really understand what it’s like.”
The mission was originally expected to last eight days as the private astronauts were kept busy with science experiments, but undocking was postponed for almost a week due to unfavorable weather at the splashdown site, with the capsule returning to Earth on April 25.
Stibbe said one of the experiments he followed involved taking photographs of thunder and lightning above the clouds, something that allowed him to spend many nighttime hours watching and admiring Earth.
The Israeli astronaut also discussed poems sent with him to the ISS, pieces of literature he was given to read while watching the planet.
“I received from a group of scholars — Israeli scholars, professors — about 15 pieces of international and Israeli poetry texts that I could read while watching Earth, coming from Sophocles, from Freud, from different authors,” Stibbe said. “. . .I think this mission is not only about science — accurate sciences and mathematics — but also about the vision and the future of mankind, humankind.”
The undocking delay did not bother the astronauts, according to López-Alegría. Rather, he said it was welcomed due to how much time was spent conducting research, calling the extra days a “blessing.”
“I think we were so focused on research and outreach in the first what ended up being eight or 10 days in orbit that we needed the extra time to sort of complete the experience by having time to look out the window, to make contact with friends and family, to just enjoy the sensation,” López-Alegría said. “I’m so grateful that that happened, because otherwise, it would have been a very different experience I think for these three, because again, we were running so fast at the beginning that we needed those days to sort of catch our breath and really get the full exposure of what human spaceflight is like.”
When asked what the group wished to do with their experiences moving forward, Stibbe said they wanted to share it with as many people as possible due to how few people can make it to space.
Pathy elaborated, describing the huge publicity as a useful way to inspire others, though not necessarily asked for.
“I don’t think any of us really welcomed the unavoidable publicity that came along with this undertaking, but I think one of the upsides to that and our responsibility at the same time is to use that as a platform for greater leadership and advocacy and hopefully inspiration going forward, and I think that’s our next big challenge is to figure out how best to apply that going forward,” Pathy said.