SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth in rare night splashdown

 SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth in rare night splashdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot.

The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m., ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company.

It was an express trip home, lasting just 6 1/2 hours.

The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule — named Resilience — in which they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.

“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX’s Mission Control radioed moments after splashdown. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

The SpaceX Dragon capsule parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Crew Dragon Resilience landing marks the successful end of SpaceX’s second crewed flight.
NASA TV via AP

“We’ll take those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. “Are they transferrable?” SpaceX replied that the astronauts would have to check with the company’s marketing department.

The SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft with parachutes open, returning to Earth as it carries four astronauts just before splashdown.
The landing was the first US crew nighttime splashdown since the Apollo 8 moonshot.
NASA/AFP via Getty Images

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the charred capsule — resembling a giant toasted marshmallow — had been hoisted onto the recovery ship, with the astronauts exiting soon afterward. NASA and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the operation went. The company’s senior adviser, Hans Koenigsmann, said: “it looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else.”

Hopkins was the first one out, doing a little dance as he emerged under the intense spotlights.

Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed.
NASA and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the landing and recovery went.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together,” he told SpaceX flight controllers at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California. “Quite frankly, you all are changing the world. Congratulations. It’s great to be back.”

The 167-day mission was the longest for a crew capsule launching from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by NASA’s final Skylab station astronauts in 1974.

Saturday night’s undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.

Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed.
The four astronauts flew back in the same capsule they launched in back in November.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

“Earthbound!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the capsule’s pilot, tweeted after departing the station. “One step closer to family and home!”

Hopkins and Glover — along with NASA’s Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi — should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but high offshore winds forced SpaceX to pass up a pair of daytime landing attempts. Managers switched to a rare splashdown in darkness, to take advantage of calm weather.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021.
The Resilience capsule is seen being hoisted onto the recovery ship.
NASA TV via AP

SpaceX had practiced for a nighttime return, just in case, and even recovered its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in darkness. Infrared cameras tracked the astronauts’ capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; it resembled a bright star streaking through the night sky.

This screen grab taken from the NASA live feed early on May 2, 2021 shows a crew member from the SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft exiting the capsule after its return to Earth.
A crew member exits the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule after its return to Earth.
NASA/AFP via Getty Images

All four main parachutes could be seen deploying just before splashdown, which was also visible in the infrared.

Apollo 8 — NASA’s first flight to the moon with astronauts — ended with a predawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on Dec. 27, 1968. Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan, blown off course in a blizzard.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience.
“Earthbound!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted while departing the International Space Station.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

That was it for nighttime crew splashdowns — until Sunday.

Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was out in full force to enforce an 11-mile (18-kilometer) keep-out zone around the bobbing Dragon capsule. For SpaceX’s first crew return in August, pleasure boaters swarmed the capsule, a safety risk. Leisure boats stayed away this time.

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience.
NASA astronaut Shannon Walker exiting the capsule.
EPA/BILL INGALLS /NASA

Once finished with their medical checks on the ship, the astronauts planned to hop on a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane straight to Houston for a reunion with their families.

“It’s not very often you get to wake up on the space station and go to sleep in Houston,” chief flight director Holly Ridings told reporters.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience.
JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi waves to cameras as he exits the capsule.
EPA/BILL INGALLS /NASA

The astronauts’ capsule, Resilience, will head back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment for SpaceX’s first private crew mission in September. The space station docking mechanism will be removed, and a brand new domed window put in its place.

A tech billionaire has purchased the entire three-day flight, which will orbit 75 miles (120 kilometers) above the space station. He’ll fly with a pair of contest winners and a physician assistant from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, his designated charity for the mission.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience.
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins celebrates a successful landing and being back home.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

SpaceX’s next astronaut launch for NASA will follow in October.

NASA turned to private companies to service the space station, after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX began supply runs in 2012 and, last May, launched its first crew, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia for astronaut transport.

Boeing isn’t expected to launch astronauts until early next year.