CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first US crew in the dark after the Apollo 8 lunar image.
The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m., completing an astronaut’s second flight for Elon Musk’s company.
It was an express trip home, lasting only 6 1/2 hours.
The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back into the same capsule – called Sustainability – in which they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thank you for flying to SpaceX,”
“We’re going to take those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. “Are they transferable?” SpaceX replied that the astronauts would have to consult with the company’s marketing department.
Within half an hour of spraying, the charred capsule — resembling a giant toast — was erected on a recovery ship equipped with bright searchlights.
The 167-day mission was the longest to launch a capsule to a U.S. crew. The previous record of 84 days was set by the final astronauts at NASA’s Skylab station in 1974.
Saturday night’s departure left seven people on the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.
“Earth!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the pilot of the capsule, tweeted after leaving the station. “One step closer to family and home!”
Hopkins and Glover – along with NASA’s Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi – were due to return to Earth last Wednesday, but strong offshore winds forced SpaceX to cancel several landing attempts during the day. Managers switched to infrequent spraying in the dark to take advantage of the calm weather.
SpaceX had trained for a night return, just in case, and even rebuilt its latest stationary cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in the dark. Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; it looked like a bright star piercing the night sky.
All four main parachutes can be seen deploying just before the spray, which is also visible in infrared light.
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Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was in full force to impose an 11-million maintenance zone around the Dragon capsule. For the first return of the SpaceX crew in August, the drivers happily piled up the capsule, which poses a safety risk.
Once out of the capsule, the astronauts planned to board a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane straight to Houston to reunite with their families.
Their capsule, Resilience, will head back to Cape Canaveral for repairs to SpaceX’s first private mission in September. The docking mechanism of the space station will be removed and a brand new domed window will be installed in its place.