After nine days in orbit, Dragon Freedom safely splashed down off the Panama City coast at 11:04 p.m. EDT Tuesday, to wrap up the second all-private crewed voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) for Houston, Texas-based AxiomSpace, Inc. Commanded by Peggy Whitson—the United States’ most flight-seasoned space traveler—the Ax-2 crew included veteran airshow pilot, athlete and motorsports endurance racer John Shoffner, plus Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Capt. Ali Al-Qarni and biomedical research scientist Rayyanah Barnawi of Saudi Arabia.
Launched from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) atop the brand-new B1080 Falcon 9 core at 5:37 p.m. EDT on 21 May, Ax-2 is the second all-private expedition to the ISS for AxiomSpace, following hard on the heels of last year’s highly successful Ax-1 mission. The launch also saw B1080 become the first Falcon 9 booster to achieve a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) on a crew-carrying mission.
Whitson, who now serves as AxiomSpace’s director of human spaceflight, became the first woman to command a Commercial Crew mission. With Ax-2, she extended her already stellar lead as America’s most experienced astronaut and the world’s most seasoned female space traveler.
Before Ax-2’s launch, she had already amassed more than 665 cumulative days in space during three long-duration ISS increments—most recently in 2016-2017—and over 60 Extravehicular Activity (EVA) hours in ten career spacewalks. Added to that raft of accomplishments, Whitson was the first female chief of NASA’s Astronaut Corps, the first female space station commander and at the age of 63 she has now broken her own record as the oldest woman to reach orbit.
Following launch, Dragon Freedom—making her second flight, after supporting last year’s 170-day Crew-4 increment to the ISS—docked autonomously at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the station’s Harmony node at 9:12 a.m. EDT on 22 May. Also aboard the spacecraft and serving as the crew’s zero-gravity indicator was Gigi, a customized “Build-a-Bear” wearing the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) suit for future Artemis lunar missions.
Their arrival at the ISS just 15 hours and 35 minutes after liftoff set a record for the shortest launch-to-docking interval of any Crew Dragon vehicle so far. After pressurization and leak checks, hatches were opened at 11 a.m. EDT and the Ax-2 quartet were welcomed aboard by Expedition 69 Commander Sergei Prokopyev, his Russian crewmates Dmitri Petelin and Andrei Fedyayev, U.S. astronauts Frank Rubio Steve Bowen and Warren “Woody” Hoburg and Sultan Al-Neyadi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was the first time that any Saudi national had visited the ISS and—with Al-Neyadi aboard—saw a record-breaking three Arab astronauts in space together.
At a welcoming ceremony, Whitson remarked that “it really does feel like home” and proceeded to award Shoffner, Al-Qarni and Barnawi their official astronaut pins as the 598th, 599th and 600th humans to achieve orbit. “I’m going to live this experience to the max,” joked Barnawi upon receipt of her pin. And Expedition 69’s Rubio added that “it really feels like the International Space Station up here. This is gonna be an awesome week!”
Ahead of the Ax-2 crew lay a busy plate of more than 20 multidisciplinary experiments spanning life sciences, human research, physical sciences and technology. Additionally, the mission carried several Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) outreach investigations and Whitson’s crew were tasked to support about 130 hours of National Lab Science during their time aboard.
Early on 23 May, Al-Qarni and Barnawi worked to set up Liquid Fireworks, a STEAM payload funded by NanoRacks to explore fluid behavior in space. Barnawi also worked extensively with the station’s Life Sciences Glovebox (LSG) to perform the DNA Nano Thereapeutics experiment, which seeks to optimize the production and assembly of DNA-based nanomaterials for potential therapeutic uses including drug delivery, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
Barnawi also joined Al-Qarni to test three NanoRacks “space kites”, affixed to a fan inside the ISS, whose aerodynamic motions were carefully tracked. Al-Qarni set up a cloud-seeding experiment, jointly developed by NanoRacks and the Saudi Space Commission, to mix moist air with iodide crystals in a reaction chamber, part of efforts to develop weather-control technologies for future human settlements on the Moon and Mars.
Elsewhere, Whitson and Shoffner partnered on the Stellar Stem Cells investigation to explore the effect of microgravity upon the growth of induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs). Whitson also conducted the Cancer in Low-Earth Orbit experiment, which focuses on potential therapies for various colorectal and breast cancers. She later removed the tumor samples from the research incubator and placed them into the fluorescence microscope to acquire imaging data.
The entire crew worked on the Nebula Human Research study, measuring blood flow to their brains, as well as electrical activity, intracranial pressures and the changeability of the eye’s optic nerve. In one run of the experiment, Shoffner and Al-Qarni scanned each other’s eyes with the Ultrasound-2 device in Europe’s Columbus lab and wore a skull cap fitted with near-infrared sensors to scan oxygen levels in their brains.
A particularly notable highlight in Ax-2’s payload haul was the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit, worn inside the ISS to simulate several aspects of terrestrial gravity. The skinsuit was designed to help mitigate negative factors, such as spinal elongation, muscular atrophy and sensorimotor changes, which have been reported by astronauts upon their return to Earth.
Aside from the science and technology, the crew were deeply involved in a number of STEAM outreach events. They spoke via the Amateur Radio on the ISS (ARISS) hardware and in media teleconferences to students in Portugal, Ireland, the United States and Saudi Arabia. And Shoffner announced the final selectees of his International Space Art and Poetry Contest, showcasing a sample of 930 student entries from 26 sovereign nations, themed to the question “What would it look like if we lived in space?”
With AxiomSpace planning its own Axiom Station to be added to the ISS, beginning in the fall of 2025, Whitson conducted several activities to prepare for the arrival of the new suite of pressurized modules. Last Saturday, she set up AxiomSpace’s Stowage Tracking and Inventory Intelligent Video System (STIIVS) in the station’s multi-windowed cupola, which employs computerized vision to identify and track items for inventory management, stowage location tracking and associated analytics.
On Monday, the Ax-2 and incumbent Expedition 69 crews gathered for a farewell ceremony. Prokopyev thanked the quartet for their “good company” and praised them for being “so charged for work”, then handed the microphone to Whitson.
Choking back tears, Whitson lauded the Expedition 69 crew for being “so courteous” and pledged “I will be back”. She then offered the mike to Al-Qarni, Shoffner and Barnawi for their comments. Shoffner joked that he had tested everyone’s patience on board “with my flying skills”, whilst an emotional Barnawi added that “Every story comes to an end”.
Early Tuesday, the quartet boarded Dragon Freedom and closed the hatches between themselves and the station at 9:20 a.m. EDT. The two spacecraft undocked at 11:05 a.m. EDT as they passed high above the Tasman Sea.
In the minutes after undocking, the Crew Dragon autonomously executed a series of departure “burns” to gradually widen the gap from the ISS. The Ax-2 crew were then able to remove their customized SpaceX launch and entry suits to make themselves more comfortable in the cabin for the next 12 hours until their return home.
Beginning a few minutes after 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Dragon Freedom’s unpressurized “trunk” was jettisoned and the deorbit burn was performed. Shortly afterwards, the spacecraft’s nose cone was closed in readiness for re-entry.
Less than an hour later, at 11:04 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft splashed down safely off the Panama City coast, concluding a mission of nine days, five hours, 26 minutes and 51 seconds. All told, Dragon Freedom had circled Earth 144 times.