SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station after six months, marking the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moon mission 53 years ago.
At 8:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, nicknamed Resilience, undocked from the International Space Station and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. NASA Television, the NASA App, and the agency’s website broadcasted the return live.
Owing to unfavorable wind levels expected at the time of the scheduled splashdown, the undocking was postponed from Friday.
According to NASA, better weather is expected for the splashdown and recovery on Sunday. A 10-nautical-mile protection zone has been developed around the predicted splashdown site by the US Coast Guard.
“We’re continuing to hear good news after good news,” NASA tweeted early Sunday. “The four main parachutes have deployed, slowing the crew’s capsule down for arrival off the coast of Panama City, Florida.”
Just before 3 a.m., the Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, bringing Elon Musk’s company’s second astronaut flight to a close. It was a quick trip back, taking just 6 1/2 hours.
Crew-1 commander Michael Hopkins, NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi returned in the same capsule that launched from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” the company’s capsule communicator radioed. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’e earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”
Their 167-day flight is the longest ever for astronauts from the United States. NASA’s final Skylab station crew set the previous record of 84 days in 1974.
“Earthbound!” After leaving the station, NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted. “One step closer to family and home!”
SpaceX had practiced a nighttime landing in case it was needed, and had even retrieved its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in the dark.
As it re-entered the atmosphere, infrared cameras monitored the capsule, which looked like a bright star streaking through the night sky. Infrared images showed all four major parachutes deploying just before splashdown.
The astronauts have been working on many projects for the past six months, including growing radishes in various forms of light and soils in space to produce food. They also looked at tissue chips that mimic human organs to see how microgravity affects human health and disease.
According to NASA, the crew was in “great health” for the return flight. They were loading science freezers full of test samples, personal products, and emergency hardware in the Resilience spacecraft ahead of Saturday’s undocking.
The Crew-1 astronauts will have spent 168 days in space when they landed. They’ll return to Houston after splashdown. The Dragon spacecraft will be retrieved and brought back to Cape Canaveral for inspection and refurbishment in preparation for future missions.
Crew-1 was the first of six crewed missions that NASA and SpaceX intend to fly as part of NASA’s commercial crew mission.
The second mission in the program launched on April 23 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with four astronauts onboard the Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft, which was also used for the first-ever crewed SpaceX flight last May.
After a 23-hour journey, the spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station on April 24. The astronauts from Crew-2 will stay in space until October.
The flights are the culmination of a years-long initiative by NASA and the private sector to bring launch capability back to the United States and end the country’s reliance on Russia for trips to the International Space Station.
NASA has certified the Crew Dragon as the first spacecraft to carry humans since the Space Shuttle.