Following their brief stint on board the International Space Station (ISS), Axiom Space’s Mission 2 (Ax-2) crew is back on Earth with an altered view of the planet that we call home.
“Can you believe we landed less than 48 hours ago?” Ax-2 Commander Peggy Whitson exclaimed during a press conference on Thursday. “It’s still striking to me to think about it, but everything was just so fast.”
Axiom Space launched its second private mission to the ISS on May 21. After spending 10 days on the space station, the Ax-2 crew splashed down aboard a Dragon spacecraft, named Freedom, off the coast of Panama City, Florida, on May 30. The crew was led by veteran astronaut Whitson, the director of Axiom Space’s Human Spaceflight, with two mission specialists from Saudi Arabia’s first class of astronauts, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, as well as Pilot John Shoffner, who purchased his ticket to the ISS through Axiom Space in 2021. Aside from Whitson, who has spent a record-breaking total of 675 days in space, the three remaining crew members had never made the trek to low Earth orbit.
“What I was really eager for was to feel the launch itself, how dynamic it is and how aggressive or soft it’s going to be,” Alqarni said during Thursday’s press conference. “I was surprised after the main booster separated, the rocket adjusted its pitch and started accelerating and all the forces pushing us against the seat, it was so amazing to feel that.”
Once they got to the space station, the crew got busy working on more than 20 different experiments in the microgravity environment. The Ax-2 crew members still found some time, however, to marvel at the view of the Earth as the ISS orbited 254 miles (408 kilometers) above the surface. That view of the pale blue dot left quite an impact on the first-time astronauts. “Just seeing that thin layer that protects the whole world and how we’re supposed to take care of this planet,” Barnawi said during the press conference. “It made me think about every little thing that we do to Earth to hurt it.”
“Being able to see all the countries just become continents and the continents become a whole world that we need to take care of, that’s a whole new perception for me,” she added. Alqarni echoed the same sentiment, describing Earth as “this fragile globe spinning in the suspended space and the darkness and we need to take care of it.”
The two Saudi astronauts were the first from their country to visit the ISS, with Barnawi becoming the first woman from the Arab world to reach space. Both astronauts described their joy at seeing the gulf country below from their view on board the ISS. “The first night, once we got on board, we were lucky to fly over the west coast of Saudi Arabia, and we were super excited,” Alqarni said. “We were like little kids...it was so amazing.”
That feeling of being in space is seemingly addictive, as longtime astronaut Whitson expressed her eagerness to return to Earth orbit. In response to a question of whether Whitson is ready for her next trip to space, the former NASA astronaut responded with, “Yup, I’m ready. Let’s go!”
Ax-2 was a follow up to Axiom Space’s first private mission to the ISS, Ax-1, which launched in April 2022. Following the return of Ax-1, NASA admitted to having learned some important lessons about having private crews on board the space station. The Ax-1 crew also complained about having too much to do on the space station and not having enough time to take it all in. Ax-2 seems to have gone a little better than its predecessor, with no complaints from this crew of four astronauts.