It would be the first American splashdown in the dark since the Apollo 8 crew returned from the moon in 1968.
SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the US’s first crew in darkness since the Apollo 8 moon shot.
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, returned to the same capsule – named Resilience – into which they were launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thank you for piloting SpaceX,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed moments after the splash. “For those of you who are signed up to our frequent flyer program, you have earned 68 million miles on this trip.”
“We’ll take those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. “Are they transferable?” SpaceX responded that astronauts should check with the company’s marketing department.
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Within minutes, Hopkins reported that he could see the light of the approaching salvage boats through the capsule window.
The 167-day mission is the longest for astronauts departing from the United States.
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, the pilot of the capsule, tweeted after leaving the station. “One more step towards 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 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; it 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.
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Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard deployed all its forces to enforce an 18-kilometer (11-mile) no-go zone around the floating Dragon capsule. For the SpaceX crew’s first return in August, boaters invaded the capsule, a safety risk.
Once aboard the SpaceX salvage 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 a refurbishment for 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 retired in 2011. SpaceX began deliveries in 2012 and, last May, launched its first crew, ending the NASA’s dependence on Russia for the transport of astronauts.
Boeing is not expected to launch astronauts until early next year.