The Axiom1 venture – which launched April 8 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – included former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who served as the commander, and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada.
What was supposed to be a 10-day trip – one day up, eight days on the ISS and a day to return – was extended a week because of weather delays. The Ax-1 crew undocked from the ISS Sunday evening and splashed down 16 hours later – Monday at 1:06 pm – in the Atlantic Ocean.
Since then, Connor and the others – who went through eight months of rigorous training prior to the launch – have gone through a series of post-mission tests in Florida.
While Connor said nothing concerning was found in those exams, he was surprised at the airport when he was met by some three dozen members of the Miamisburg High School marching band blasting out the “Hey Now” song, as over 100 Connor Group associates (as employees are called) and some friends and family members applauded, cheered and rang bells. A few people held up face masks of Connor in his white astronaut’s helmet.
Even The Connor Group dog – a massive black Bernese Mountain Dog named Avalanche that lounges in the company headquarters – was happy to see the boss.
But no one beamed more than two of Connor’s grandchildren – 3-year-old Collins and 1-year-old Camp – who stood with their mom, Teddi.
Collins handed her granddad – who they call Pops – a homemade sign that read “Welcome Home To Earth Pops.”
She’d spoken to him once when he called from space and then she had had just one question:
“Pops, do they have cookies in space?”
“The answer was ‘No,'” Teddi laughed.
But that may have been the only disappointment connected to this mission.
Even the weather delays were “a blessing in disguise,” Connor said Wednesday.
“We ran so hard, so intensely, those first five, six, seven days – we were working 14 hours a day with experiments and research projects we were doing – that when we got to the end of the stated mission, we really hadn’t t had an opportunity to experience everything.”
During the trip, the crew conducted 25 research projects.
The 72-year-old Connor partnered with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic on four different experiments to study the heart, brain, spine and aging. He also assisted on several projects his fellow astronauts were involved in.
In addition, he conducted live broadcasts with several groups of school children from the Miami Valley.
“So those extra days at the end gave us some time to save it all,” he said. “We still had things to do, but it wasn’t as intense and we could really enjoy the whole experience.”
‘Once in a lifetime experience’
Connor said since they undocked from the ISS Sunday just after 9 pm he’s had a couple of memorable things happen:
“The ride up had been about what I expected, but the ride down was a lot better – especially the last 10 to 15 minutes. We went from being 100 kilometers down to (earth) in five minutes.
“We were falling out of the sky fast.
“We were a house on fire coming down! It was so exhilarating!”
He said from the time the first chutes came out, followed by the main chutes and the splashdown, it was an experience he’ll never forget.
“And the thing that was really special – something I hadn’t realized, maybe because of my naivete – was the impact we were able to make with these outreach programs we did with kids,” he said. “And not just here in the US, but around the globe. It turned out to be more powerful than I ever imagined it would be.”
Wendy Taylor, an accounting assistant with The Connor Group and one of the firm’s 60 or so partners, said the impact was with more than just kids:
“This was a once in a lifetime experience we all got to live with him. It feels like we got to go to space with him. He made us feel a part of it.
“And it wasn’t just me. My family felt that way and my church, too. It was like they knew Larry, too”
She said her grandkids told her how they “played the tape of his take-off and his splashdown in school. And they watched him on board (the ISS.)
“Schools used this as an educational tool. He gave them a valuable lesson: ‘Don’t set your limits so low. Set them as high as you want.’
“He’s never been a tunnel-thinking man. He’s looked far beyond the sky and he’s helped other people do it, too.”
She said even the pastor at her church – Grace Gospel Baptist in Franklin – “got on board,” too:
“He was like, ‘I can’t wait to see him up there!’ It was like we were up there with him – in sprit and mind.”
Connor touched on that when he briefly addressing his “Welcome Home” crowd:
“At the end of the day, it’s not really about us when we’re up there. It’s about everyone else who made that happen. Was it not for you all, there’s no way I could have done this.
“Whether it’s SpaceX, Axiom… you don’t go up there by yourself. You go up with a whole family. So, thank you very much.”
‘He just doesn’t stop’
Chris Jemo, a senior vice president of recruiting for The Connor Group and a partner, said there’s one consistent characteristic of Connor shows, whether it’s in business, his philanthropy or the myriad adventures he’s been on in life:
“He sees something that is hard to do, something that seems impossible and he finds a way to do it.
Connor said this venture was a special test:
“When you are way out of your element, grit, determination and perseverance are really good tools to have.”
Now that he’s back on earth, he still can draw on them.
“A lot of astronauts say the first two or three days back you can’t even turn a corner, but I haven’t really had any problems walking,” he said.
“Right now I just feel like the day after you play in a football game. Your body is sore. You feel it in your legs and your back. You have a kind of beat-up feeling.
“It’s not that the rocket ride down is that bad. It’s just coming from zero gravity back to gravity.
“They talk about post-splashdown, how it can take two to three months until you get fully acclimated in everything again. But I think we’re moving ahead really quickly.
“I’m not saying I’m functioning 100 percent, either physically or with my brain processing everything, but it’s a work in progress. Within a week or two I should be in great shape.”
So is he taking some time off?
The question made him laugh.
He pulled out his phone and found a message that answered that:
“They sent me my schedule for tomorrow. I start at 8 in the morning and go ’til 7:45 at night. There are like 20 different meetings. I’m doing a speech down at the University of Dayton and there’s an interview with CNN. All kinds of things.”
As Jemo had said earlier: “He’s a guy who is very involved. He just doesn’t stop.”
So does that mean there might be another adventure already in the works?
Connor shrugged, then admitted with a smile: “I am doing a high altitude jump from 30,000 feet this summer in Tennessee. I have a really good friend here who is a former Golden Knight. He’s a world champion skydiver and they do a lot of special forces training now.”
But before that, there’s something else to do.
Now that she’s welcomed him back home to earth, Collins can see that Pops gets some cookies.