After traveling 75,060,792 miles during 177 days in orbit, NASA's Crew-3 mission returned to Earth on May 6 in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, but the three NASA astronauts and a single European Space Agency astronaut endured something unique up there.
The mission was a complete success, with many scientific experiments completed — and a few days spent hosting the first all-private crew on the ISS, from Ax-1. But in November of 2021, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile in orbit, placing everyone aboard the station in peril.
One would think any human would react to news of tens of thousands of bits of deadly space debris potentially veering toward you with fear. But not the crew of Crew-3.
"Scared would be the wrong word" to describe the professional astronauts' reaction, said a crew member during a press conference that IE attended. "We divvied up as a crew and did what we were trained to do."
NASA and ESA astronauts hosted Axiom-1, the first all-private commercial mission to the ISS
Arguably of equal historic value was Crew-3's role in playing space hosts to the first-ever all-private mission the International Space Station: the Axiom-1 mission. It was "really nice to be part of history — to realize the dream of having a completely commercial program in low-earth orbit," said the crew.
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The Ax-1 astronauts "faced challenges experiencing space for the first time, and faced a complicated suite of experiments," continued the Crew-3 crew, during the press conference. "We enjoyed getting to know them, they were gracious and kind, we were happy to have their experimental results completed."
Notably, this was the first trip to the ISS for some of the astronauts, which raised the question of whether their expectations matched the lived reality of living on a real-world space station. "From a jobs standpoint it did meet expectations — the training teams here in mission control and Houston, all the different centers together" helped prepare the astronauts for the real deal.
But the actual journey to space also went beyond expectations.
NASA and the ESA's Crew-3 mission respond to Russia's anti-satellite test
"What exceeded them was the joy of living and working with the crew, it is really cool to wake up and know you're going to spend the next 24 hours with these people," remarked the crew. "It's going to take some adjustment to get back" to a normal Earth work schedule.
But before the end of the mission, and months before the Axiom-1 private astronauts arrived, geopolitics paid the space station a visit when Russia executed a highly dangerous anti-satellite missile test (ASAT) in low-Earth orbit, sending tens of thousands of bits of space debris careening around the Earth at deadly speeds that could slice through the ISS.
The astronauts responded to the threat by taking shelter in SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, and although it "wasn't a good thing to happen," the emergency turned out to be "a really good crew training exercise," said the astronauts. "We all got to see how the culture and the flow was — and actually check out using the Dragon as a safe haven."
"It was actually a privilege to actuate all the hatches, we got to know our space station much better as a result of" Russia's ASAT test. This isn't to say that astronauts take a major geopolitical event lightly — the ISS is a very important asset for most of the space-faring powers of the world. Rather, with Crew-3 back on the ground, we have confirmation that whatever chaos is flung into space from the Earth, NASA and the ESA's astronauts are capable of calmly handling the situation, without falling back on scientific or commercial aims once the crisis has passed.