NASA-SpaceX mission crew makes a splash in the Gulf of Mexico, returning home from the International Space Station

NASA-SpaceX mission crew makes a splash in the Gulf of Mexico, returning home from the International Space Station

After six months in space, four astronauts on a historic NASA-SpaceX mission have returned back to Earth.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, dubbed Resilience, undocked from the International Space Station at 8:35 p.m. ET Saturday. and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida at about 2:56 a.m. ET Sunday. The return aired live on NASA Television, the NASA App and the agency's website.

In darkness, four astronauts splashed down early Sunday morning in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Fla.

That marked a successful end of a mission for NASA led by a private company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to take its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It was the first of what the space agency calls an operational mission.

Half a year ago, a SpaceX rocket lifted off with the four astronauts — three from NASA, one from Japan’s space agency — who were sitting inside one of the company’s Crew Dragon capsules. On Sunday, the same capsule, named Resilience, safely returned to Earth, just before 3 a.m. Eastern time.

“We welcome you back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Michael Heiman, a SpaceX mission control official, told the astronauts. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flier program, you have earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

“Resilience is back on planet Earth and we’ll take those miles,” replied Mike Hopkins, the NASA astronaut commanding the mission, “Are they transferable?”

The last time that NASA astronauts splashed down in the nighttime was in 1968, when the three astronauts of Apollo 8, the first to orbit the moon, returned to Earth.

Less than half an hour later, the capsule was hoisted out of the water onto a recovery ship.

Minutes later, as SpaceX personnel prepared to open the side hatch of Resilience, Mr. Hopkins praised the work of the company. “I’d just like to say quite frankly, you all are changing the world,” he said.

Mr. Heiman returned the compliments. “Your crew is really a tribute to Resilience’s name,” he said. “We wish you all happy reunions with your families and loved ones. And thanks again for flying SpaceX.”

Shortly before 4 a.m. Eastern time, all four members of the crew had exited the capsule and were preparing for the trip back to land.

NASA said it will hold a news conference at 5 a.m. Eastern time with updates on the mission.

The undocking was moved from Friday due to unfavorable wind speeds forecast at the time of the anticipated splashdown. More ideal conditions are in the forecast for Sunday's splashdown and recovery, NASA said. The U.S. Coast Guard has established a 10-nautical-mile safety zone around the expected splashdown location.

“We’re continuing to hear good news after good news,” NASA tweeted early Sunday. "The four main parachutes have deployed, slowing the crew’s capsule down for arrival off the coast of Panama City, Florida."

This was the first nighttime splashdown of a U.S.-crewed spacecraft since Apollo 8's return on Dec. 27, 1968, in the Pacific Ocean.

"Recovery vessels are on the way to hoist the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft out of the ocean and place it inside the Dragon nest aboard," NASA tweeted early on Sunday.

Three NASA astronauts -- Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker -- and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are making the journey home. They launched into orbit Nov. 15, 2020, in what was the first operational crewed flight for the Crew Dragon capsule as part of NASA's commercial crew mission, and SpaceX's second-ever crewed flight to space.

For the past six months, the astronauts have worked on several experiments, including producing food in space by growing radishes in different types of light and soils. They also studied tissue chips that mimic human organs to learn more about how microgravity affects human health and diseases.

The crew was in "great health" for the return flight, NASA said. Ahead of Saturday's undocking, they were packing science freezers filled with research samples, personal items and emergency hardware in the Resilience spacecraft.

"Coming home soon!" Hopkins, the Crew-1 Dragon resilience commander, tweeted hours before the undocking. "It's been a great mission with great teams both on the ground and on @Space_Station."

Glover, the crew's pilot, expressed "gratitude, wonder, connection" after celebrating his 45th birthday in space on Friday.

"This orbiting laboratory is a true testament to what we can accomplish when we work together as a team," he said on Twitter. "Crew-1 is ready for our ride home!"

When they landed, the Crew-1 astronauts will have spent 168 days in space. Upon splashdown, they will return to Houston. The Dragon spacecraft will be recovered and return to Cape Canaveral, where it will be inspected and refurbished for future missions.

Crew-1 was the first of six crewed missions NASA and SpaceX plan to fly as part of NASA's commercial crew mission.

The second mission in the program launched on April 23 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, with four astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft, the same one used during the first-ever crewed SpaceX flight last May.

The spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on April 24, after about a 23-hour ride. The Crew-2 astronauts will remain in space until October.

The flights mark a yearslong effort between NASA and the private sector to bring launch capabilities back to U.S. soil and end a dependency on Russia for trips to the International Space Station.

The Crew Dragon is the first spacecraft since the Space Shuttle to be certified by NASA to carry humans.

What happened during the astronauts’ trip home?

It was be a long trip. The astronauts boarded the Crew Dragon and the hatch closed at 6:26 p.m., but then more than two hours passed before the capsule left as the astronauts checked that there were no air leaks from either the capsule or the space station.

Resilience autonomously undocked at 8:35 p.m. and then performed a series of thruster firings to move away from the space station.

SpaceX confirmed that the thruster firings were completed at 10:17 p.m. The capsule then circled the planet until Florida lined up in the correct position for it to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just before 2 a.m., as it prepared for its return to Earth, the Crew Dragon jettisoned what SpaceX calls the “trunk” section of the spacecraft — the cylindrical compartment below the gumpdrop-shaped capsule. The trunk will burn up in the atmosphere.

Five minutes after the trunk was detached, the capsule fired its thrusters for about 16 minutes to drop out of orbit.

Once it was low enough in Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes deployed to gently lower the capsule into the sea.

Spacecraft can safely return to Earth on water or land.

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules all splashed down in the ocean while Soviet capsules all ended their trips on land. Russia’s current Soyuz capsules continue to make ground landings, as do China’s astronaut-carrying Shenzhou capsules.

NASA returned to water landings on Aug. 2, 2020, when the first crew returning to Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule — the same one that carried astronauts to the space station last week — splashed down near Pensacola, Fla.

Returning from the free-fall environment of orbit to the normal forces of gravity on Earth is often disorienting for astronauts. A water landing adds the possibility of seasickness.

During a news conference last year, Douglas Hurley, a member of the earlier crew that completed a water landing in the SpaceX capsule, said he had read reports by astronauts from NASA’s Skylab missions, some of the last before him to do water landings. “There was some challenges post-splashdown,” he said. “Folks didn’t feel well, and you know, that is the way it is with a water landing, even if you’re not deconditioned like we’re going to be.”

Mr. Hurley acknowledged that vomiting would not be unexpected.

“There are bags if you need them, and we’ll have those handy,” he said. He added that “if that needs to happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened in a space vehicle.”

American spacecraft have not carried out a nighttime water landing by astronauts since Apollo 8, NASA says.

That crew arrived before dawn on Dec. 27, 1968, about 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. The Times the next day called it “a pinpoint splashdown” and noted that the crew stayed in their capsule for about 90 minutes before they were fished out of the Pacific Ocean by a helicopter team from the U.S.S. Yorktown. William Anders, the mission’s lunar module pilot, said over the radio while in the capsule, “Get us out of here, I’m not the sailor on this boat.” (James Lovell, his crew mate, had been a captain in the U.S. Navy.)

SpaceX has rehearsed working at night, and in January it successfully recovered a cargo capsule that splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Tampa Bay.

Steve Stich, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, said that consistently calm nighttime weather at the splash down site, ample moonlight and additional factors made landing in the dark advantageous.

“When we weighed all those options, it just looked like this was the best time to come home,” he said on NASA TV on Saturday.

One advantage of a nighttime landing could be that fewer private boats are likely to be around. That was a problem in August when the earlier SpaceX capsule splashed down. More than a dozen boats — one of them flying a Trump campaign flag — converged on the singed capsule, and a few went in for a closer look.

The episode raised concerns among NASA and SpaceX officials about security and safety procedures. If there had been an emergency, NASA officials said, the private boats might have impeded recovery efforts. They added that there could have been poisonous fumes from the capsule that posed a risk to the boaters.

To avert such an outcome, the Coast Guard this time set up an 11.5-mile safety zone around splashdown site and chase away any interlopers.

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