Four astronauts strapped to their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, undocked from the International Space Station and dived before dawn Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico, closing the first operational flight of SpaceX’s futuristic touchscreen ferry.
Crew 1 Commander Michael Hopkins, along with NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were disconnected from the space-facing port of the Harmony module in front of the station at 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday.
This only set up the second water-piloted landing for NASA’s post-shuttle commercial crew program and the third nighttime splashdown in space history – the first in nearly 45 years. .
But the Crew Dragon made a manual return to Earth, abandoning orbit, deploying four large parachutes and settling in a slight dip south of Panama City, Fla. At 2:56 a.m., closing a mission spanning 2,688 out of 168 orbits. days since launch last November.
“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX teams, we welcome you to planet Earth, and thank you for piloting SpaceX,” the company’s capsule communicator announced over the radio. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this trip.”
“It’s good to be back on planet Earth,” Hopkins replied. “And we’ll take those miles. Are they transferable?”
“And Dragon, we will have to refer you to our marketing department for this policy.”
Despite the night landing, NASA’s WB-57 tracker aircraft captured spectacular infrared views of the capsule as it descended into the dense lower atmosphere as cameras onboard SpaceX’s recovery ship showed the moment of splash.
SpaceX crews rushed to the Crew Dragon to secure the spacecraft and transport it aboard a company salvage ship. The astronauts remained inside, waiting for the capsule to be carried aboard where staff stood beside to help them out, on stretchers if necessary, as they began to readjust to gravity after five months. and a half in space.
“What a ride! Thanks to the @NASA, @SpaceX and @USCG teams for a safe and successful return trip to Earth,” Glover tweeted. “Another step closer to family and home!”
Before going up on his own, Hopkins radioed the flight controllers to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Saying “on behalf of Crew-1 and our families, we just want to thank you.”
“We would like to thank you for this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” he said. “We said it before the mission and I’ll say it again here after, it’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. So well, I just want to say, quite frankly, that you all change the world. . Congratulations. It’s great to be back. “
After medical checks and phone calls to friends and family, the four crew members were to be transported ashore by helicopter and handed over to NASA staff for a return flight to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
While mission managers prefer daytime landings, bad weather ruled out re-entry plans on Wednesday and Saturday. With mild winds expected early Sunday, NASA and SpaceX have agreed to aim for a pre-dawn return for Crew-1 astronauts.
“Night landing? At sea? Fortunately there is a naval aviator on board! You have this” @AstroVicGlover !!! Astronaut Nick Hague tweeted, highlighting Glover’s experience as a Navy F / A-18 aircraft carrier pilot. Soft landings for the resilience crew. “
Unlike Crew Dragon’s first piloted splashdown last August, when the spacecraft was quickly surrounded by boaters enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Gulf, the Coast Guard planned to set up a safety zone of 10 miles wide for this landing to keep spectators early in the morning. very far away.
The return of the Crew Dragon completed a record-breaking crew rotation requiring two launches and landings with four different spacecraft in just three weeks to replace the seven crew members on the International Space Station.
On April 9, atransported Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrovnik and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei to the station after a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They replaced – Sergey Ryzhikov, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins – who returned to Earth on April 17.
Then, on April 24, a Crew Dragon brought in Crew 2 Commander Shane Kimbrough, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Japanese aviator Akihiko Hoshide.. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket which also helped launch Hopkins and Company, the crew they replace aboard the station.
After helping Crew-2 astronauts settle aboard the lab complex, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi, who, bid her seven crew members farewell on Saturday night and floated in their own Crew Dragon to undock.
After moving away from a safe distance, the ship’s flight computer triggered the ship’s brake thrusters for approximately 16.5 minutes starting at 2:03 a.m. Sunday.
Moving through space at over 17,100 mph – over 83 football fields per second – the rocket fire slowed the Crew Dragon to 258 mph, just enough to drop the other side of orbit into the dense low atmosphere on a path targeting the Gulf of Mexico Landing Zone.
Protected by a high-tech heat shield, the Crew Dragon struck the perceptible atmosphere around 2:45 a.m., decelerating rapidly in an outbreak of atmospheric friction.
Once out of the plasma-heated zone, the spacecraft’s parachutes unwound, allowing the ship to stabilize at a relatively gentle impact in the Gulf.
The last previous night landing was in October 1976 when two cosmonauts in a Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft, making an unplanned descent in snowstorm conditions after a docking failure, were thrown into a large lake in Kazakhstan. It took the recovery teams nine hours to move the spacecraft to shore and rescue the cosmonauts.
The only other nocturnal splashdown was in December 1968 when the Apollo 8 crew, returning from a Christmas trip around the moon, made a planned and uneventful landing before dawn in the Pacific Ocean.