Four astronauts returned from the International Space Station early Sunday morning aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico nearly six months after arriving at the orbital laboratory in November last year as the first operational, long-duration crew under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Soichi Noguchi boarded Crew Dragon and undocked from the space station on time at 8:35PM ET Saturday to begin their roughly six-hour trek home.
The crew splashed down off the coast of Panama City, Florida at 2:56AM ET on Sunday, marking the first nighttime splashdown of a crewed US spacecraft since December 1968, when Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, NASA said.
68 million frequent flyer miles
“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX mission control said to the crew upon splashing down, throwing in some comedy: “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”
“Resilience is back on planet Earth. And we’ll take those miles — are they transferable?” Resilience commander Hopkins replied from the capsule, as it bobbed in the water.
Crew Dragon’s nighttime plunge in the Gulf of Mexico was seen on a live feed of infrared cameras. A pair of first-responding “fast boats” raced toward the space capsule moments after it splashed down to ensure Crew Dragon’s parachutes detached upon hitting the water, as planned, so they don’t yank the capsule upside down in the water. A SpaceX recovery ship arrived shortly after to hoist Crew Dragon on a platform using a crane.
“It really could not have been a more flawless journey home for Crew Dragon Resilience,” NASA public affairs officer Leah Cheshier said on a live feed.
The four astronauts emerged from the capsule with the help of medics, before returning ashore to catch a NASA plane back to the agency’s astronaut headquarters in Houston, Texas.
Launching to space from Florida last November, the Crew-1 astronauts tallied about 167 days aboard the space station, a science laboratory orbiting Earth 250 miles above ground that has continuously housed international crews of astronauts for over two decades. Their return was initially set for Wednesday, April 28th, but was delayed due to high winds in the splashdown zone.
This particular Crew Dragon spacecraft, dubbed Resilience by its crew, was the second SpaceX capsule to fly humans, coming after SpaceX’s first crewed mission, Demo-2, in May 2020. Resilience broke the record for the longest-serving US spacecraft to be docked on the ISS, surpassing the 84 days tallied by the 1974 Skylab 4 crew.
The first splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule took place in August 2020 for the Demo-2 mission, returning NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley from space after a two-month test mission.
“It’s not very often you get to wake up on the space station, and go to sleep in Houston”
That mid-day splashdown, also in the Gulf of Mexico, attracted a swarm of Florida boaters coming dangerously close to Crew Dragon. NASA and the US Coast Guard beefed up protections for Crew-1’s splashdown to make sure no curious boaters came close this time, out of caution that the capsule’s flammable fuel could leak and endanger anyone outside the spacecraft. Since splashdown was so early Sunday morning, no boaters were around, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Steve Stich said in a press conference.
“Reentry is hard, and the spacecraft was in a beautiful condition,” NASA’s human exploration chief Kathy Lueders said in a 5AM ET press conference after the Resilience crew splashed down. “But you just worry as you go through the comms blackout — and it was so great to hear Mike’s voice,” she added, referring to the moments of radio silence as Crew Dragon plunges through Earth’s atmosphere.
“All four crew members are doing really well,” NASA’s chief flight director Holly Ridings said at the news conference. “It’s not very often you get to wake up on the space station, and go to sleep in Houston... The orbital mechanics and the weather don’t always work out, but today they did.”