(AP) — CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Three wealthy businessmen and their astronaut escort returned from the International Space Station on Monday, capping a costly vacation that marked NASA's first time as a B&B host.
They splashed down in the Atlantic off the Florida coast after flying back in a SpaceX capsule after a 17-day excursion that cost them $55 million each.
The trip was supposed to last a little over a week, but dicey weather kept the visitors in orbit almost twice as long as intended.
The journey was expected to last about a week, but bad weather forced the guests to stay in orbit for nearly twice as long as planned.
Larry Connor, a real estate magnate, described the endeavor as "amazing."
The astronauts thanked their seven hosts, including three NASA astronauts whose own mission is coming to an end, before departing the space station on Sunday night.
After decades of avoiding the practice mastered by Russia, NASA opened its space hatches to tourists for the first time. A Russian film crew arrived in the fall of last year, followed by a Japanese fashion magnate and his assistant. In each occasion, they were accompanied by an active-duty cosmonaut.
The latest passengers were joined by a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space, the Houston firm in command of the voyage, making it the first wholly private trip to the space station.
NASA was eager to make way for the next crew after entertaining for longer than planned. Three NASA astronauts and one Italian will be sent to the International Space Station by SpaceX as early as Wednesday. They'll take the place of the three Americans and a German who have been up there since November and will return in their own SpaceX spacecraft.
By NASA's standards, the speed is blistering. Benji Reed, a spokesperson for SpaceX, said the firm launched its first passengers two years ago — a pair of NASA test pilots — and has recently completed its first private mission to the space station using the same capsule.
Axiom organized the trip for three paying customers: Connor from Dayton, Ohio, Canadian private equity CEO Mark Pathy, and Tel Aviv-based Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe. Michael Lopez-Alegria, an Axiom vice president who traveled to space four times as a NASA astronaut, was their escort.
After leaving the space station, Lopez-Alegria said it was a "wonderful trip that we've had, even longer and more interesting than we expected."
For the journey, Axiom partnered with SpaceX, which began on April 8 with a launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It was SpaceX's second private flight, following a billionaire's orbital trip with contest winners two months before.
The guests conducted experiments and looked back at Earth while in space.
"It's been eye-opening in so many ways that I think will have such a long-term impact on my life," Pathy added.
For Stibbe, the experience was particularly personal. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, died aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, and he served as a fighter pilot under him.
Stibbe had copies of Ramon's space diary pages that had survived, as well as artwork and music created by Ramon's children. He observed Passover by eating matzah bread he had made himself and gefilte fish provided by the station's Russians.
The second launch of Axiom is scheduled for next spring, with the business aiming for its own space station by 2030.
After the splashdown, Derek Hassmann, Axiom's operations director, commented, "There were a lot of eyes on this trip just to see if it was practical." "Everyone knew it was conceivable," he said, but he worried if amateurs could pull it off with only a few hours of training and without disrupting the space station staff.
"I believe we demonstrated that," Hassmann remarked.