SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first American crew emerge in the dark since the Apollo 8 lunar image in 1968.
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.
NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi headed home in the same Dragon capsule that delivered them to the space station last November.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Hopkins called on the radio as the capsule detached 420 miles (420 kilometers) above Mali.
Despite the early spray time, the Coast Guard deployed additional patrols and searchlights to keep all night owl sightings. The capsule of SpaceX’s first crew was surrounded by vessels last summer, posing a safety risk.
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Hopkins, the commander of the spacecraft, flew into orbit with his crew on November 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Their replacements arrived a week ago aboard their own Dragon capsule, the same one that launched the first SpaceX crew last spring.
The four had to return earlier, but a strong sea wind kept them on the space station for a few extra days. SpaceX and NASA have determined that the best time will be before dawn.
The delays allowed Glover to celebrate his 45th birthday in space on Friday.
“Thanksgiving, a miracle, a relationship. I’m full and motivated by these feelings on my birthday as my first space mission ends,” Glover tweeted.
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Saturday night’s retreat left seven astronauts on the space station: three Americans, two Russians, a Japanese and a Frenchman.