The four astronauts of the private Ax-2 mission returned to Earth in their SpaceX Dragon capsule late Tuesday night (May 30).
That Dragon, named Freedom, undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) earlier in the day at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT), ending a 10-day mission that included eight days docked at the orbiting lab. Freedom returned to Earth 12 hours later with a flawless splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida at 11:04 p.m. EDT (0304 GMT on May 31), ending the Ax-2 mission by SpaceX for the Houston-based company Axiom Space.
"SpaceX, we would like to tell you, that was a phenomenal ride," said Ax-2 commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of four spaceflights, just after splashdown. "We really enjoyed all of it."
Related: Private Ax-2 astronauts get warm welcome on space station (video)
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Ax-2 is the second mission to the ISS operated by Axiom Space, after Ax-1 in April 2022. That previous mission was the first all-private crewed flight to the orbiting lab.
Ax-2 was commanded by Whitson, the record-breaking former NASA astronaut who now serves as director of human spaceflight at Axiom Space. The other crewmates were John Shoffner, Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.
Shoffner was a paying customer for Axiom Space, and AlQarni and Barnawi are members of Saudi Arabia's first astronaut class for the Saudi Space Commission. The latter duo were the first Saudis to visit the ISS, and Barnawi became the first woman from the kingdom ever to reach space.
Just one person from Saudi Arabia had ever gone to space before Ax-2 — the prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery back in 1985.
"Every story comes to an end, and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region," Barnawi said during a farewell ceremony on the ISS on Monday (May 29).
"So, [I'd] just like to thank everyone here who has helped us," she added, fighting back tears.
Whitson — who has spent more time in space than any other American and any other woman — also choked up during the farewell ceremony. (Her spaceflight record stood at 665 days before Ax-2's launch. She is also the first woman to command a private space mission.)
"These guys, they welcomed us onboard," the Ax-2 commander said, referring to the crewmembers of the ISS' current Expedition 69 mission. "And they've helped us a lot, 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!"
More SpaceX Dragons will be making their way to the ISS in the near future, if all goes according to plan.
A robotic version of the capsule is scheduled to launch on a cargo mission to the orbiting lab this Saturday (June 3), for example. And the Crew Dragon Endurance will fly four people to the ISS on SpaceX's Crew-7 mission for NASA, which is slated to lift off in August.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. ET on May 30 with depature-ceremony quotes from Rayyanah Barnawi and Peggy Whitson.