SpaceX’s Dragon capsule – and the Nasa Crew-1 mission it was carrying – returned safely to Earth after a trip to the International Space Station.
It was the first official crew to make this trip in a SpaceX spacecraft, as the name suggests, although the astronauts made the same trip in the final test. It was also NASA’s first night-time landing since the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, with difficult conditions in recent days forcing the initial arrival times to be delayed.
The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off 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 only 6.5 hours.
The astronauts, three Americans and one Japanese, entered the same capsule – named Resilience – into which they were launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
Their 167-day mission is the longest for astronauts departing from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by the final crew at Nasa’s Skylab station in 1974.
Saturday night’s undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.
“Tied to the earth!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted after leaving the station. “One more step towards family and home!”
Glover – along with Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of Japan – should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but strong offshore winds forced SpaceX to pass up two daytime landing attempts. The managers went through a rare splashdown in the dark, to take advantage of the calm weather.
SpaceX had been practicing for a nocturnal comeback, just in case, and had even retrieved its most recent cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in the dark. Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; he looked like a bright star crossing the night sky. The four main parachutes could be seen deploying just before the splash, which was also visible in the infrared.
Apollo 8 – NASA’s first flight to the moon with astronauts – ended with a pre-dawn dive in the Pacific near Hawaii on December 27, 1968. Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark and partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan. , deviated from its path in a snowstorm.
That was it for the nightly crew splash – until Sunday. Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was ready to enforce an 18 km zone of protection around the Dragon capsule.
For the SpaceX crew’s first return in August, boaters invaded the capsule, a safety risk.
Once aboard the SpaceXrecovery ship, the astronauts planned to board a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane directly to Houston for a reunion with their families.
Their capsule, Resilience, will return to Cape Canaveral for the refurbishment of SpaceX’s first private crew mission in September. The space station’s docking mechanism will be removed and a brand new dome-shaped window will be put in its place.
A tech billionaire bought the entire three-day flight, which will orbit 120 kilometers above the space station. He will fly with two competition winners and a physician assistant from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, his designated charity for the mission.
SpaceX’s next astronaut launch for NASA will follow in October.
NASA turned to private companies to maintain the space station, after the shuttle fleet withdrew in 2011.
SpaceX began deliveries in 2012 and last May launched its first crew, ending NASA’s dependence on Russia for the transport of astronauts.
Boeing is not expected to launch astronauts until early next year.