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SpaceX successfully brings crew of four home from the International Space Station

The company’s Crew Dragon capsule splashed down at 10:33PM ET

A nighttime view of the Crew Dragon capsule just before splashdown
Image: NASA

A crew of four astronauts successfully returned to Earth Monday evening, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Their arrival back on the planet brings an end to a more than six-monthlong stay aboard the International Space Station, and it paves the way for another crew of four to launch to the ISS in the coming week.

The crew includes two NASA astronauts, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency. The group launched to the space station on April 23rd atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, part of a mission called Crew-2.

“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” a SpaceX flight controller declared when the crew splashed down. SpaceX personnel on a recovery ship then hoisted the Crew Dragon out of the water and helped the crew leave the vehicle one by one.

Their flight marks the third time that SpaceX has launched people to the International Space Station and then safely brought them home. Such trips are part of SpaceX’s contract with NASA through the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative that tasks private companies with ferrying NASA’s astronauts and international partners to and from the ISS. SpaceX launched its first crew of two to the station in May 2020, part of a test flight to prove the safety of its Crew Dragon capsule, designed to launch on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. That flight was followed by SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission in November 2020, which sent a crew of four to the ISS for a six-month rotation.

Now that Crew-2 is back on the ground, SpaceX will quickly pivot to its next crewed launch, aptly named Crew-3. Another crew of four — including NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, as well as German astronaut Matthias Maurer — are scheduled to launch inside a Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday, November 10th at 9:03PM ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The crew will take the place of the Crew-2 astronauts who just left and do another six-month rotation up in orbit.

The original plan was for Crew-3 to launch on October 31st, before the Crew-2 astronauts left the station. That way, the outgoing crew could greet the newcomers, give them a brief introduction, and hand off duties before heading home. However, the Crew-3 mission suffered a series of delays. Bad weather at one of the launch’s abort locations pushed back the launch first. Then one of the crew members suffered a minor medical issue, prompting NASA to delay the launch further. The agency did not say what the issue was but said that it was not related to COVID-19.

Because of these setbacks, the Crew-2 astronauts are back on Earth before Crew-3 arrives at the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is able to last up to 210 days in orbit, and the Crew-2 capsule’s limit didn’t end until November 19th, but NASA ultimately decided to bring home Crew-2 now in anticipation of bad winter weather getting worse deeper into the month.

However, there’s still a NASA astronaut on board the ISS to help ease the Crew-3 astronauts’ transition. Mark Vande Hei launched to the station on a Russian Soyuz rocket in April and won’t come home until March 2022, marking a nearly yearlong stay in orbit. His presence on board “definitely helped us and helped me feel more comfortable in the decision to land first before we launch,” Joel Montalbano, manager of the International Space Station at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a press briefing.

The Crew-2 astronauts undocked from the space station at 2:05PM ET on Monday. When the astronauts first got inside their vehicle, one of the touchscreens needed a reboot, but the trouble didn’t seem to impact the flight. After they left the station, they spent a few hours flying around the ISS in a circular pattern. It was an intentional maneuver, allowing the astronauts to get pictures of the ISS from different vantage points that aren’t normally seen. Once that fly-around was complete, the Crew Dragon began drifting away from the station, putting it on its course back to Earth.

Though the astronauts came home safely, there was a brief scary moment when the Crew Dragon’s parachutes deployed just before splash down to slowly lower the capsule down into the water. Three of the four parachutes appeared to expand normally, while one chute inflated much more slowly. After the splashdown, a NASA official explained that the agency will review what happened. “It is behavior we’ve seen multiple times in other tests and usually happens when the lines kind of bunch up together until the aero-forces kind of open up and spread the chutes,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for space operations at NASA, said during the launch livestream. Lueders claimed that the way the Crew Dragon decelerated into the water looked normal. It’s unclear if the strange parachute deployment will affect the upcoming Crew-3 launch yet, but NASA will provide an update after a full launch readiness review.

The fourth main parachute taking longer to inflate than the others.
Image: NASA

Otherwise, the splashdown seemed to go well and NASA felt vindicated about its decision to bring the crew home ahead of Crew-3, noting the weather at the splashdown site was perfect. “It was like a lake out there, a very calm lake,” Lueders said. “So this was the best decision we could have made.”

While on board the ISS, the Crew-2 astronauts performed more than 300 experiments, one of which involved growing Hatch chile peppers in orbit. The crew ate their creations with some tacos, helping to spice up their diet while in space. The Crew-2 team also dealt with some unexpected moments aboard the ISS, notably when a newly docked Russian module accidentally fired its thrusters and spun the station around its axis.

Updated November 9th, 8:00AM ET: This post was updated to include information from NASA about the Crew Dragon’s parachute deployment and weather at the splashdown site.