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SpaceX sends 4 astronauts back to Earth with rare nocturnal splash

CAP CANAVERAL, Fla .– 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 6.5 hours.

The astronauts, three Americans and one Japanese, entered 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 announced by radio moments after the splashdown. “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.

Within half an hour of the splash, the charred capsule – resembling a giant toasted marshmallow – had been hoisted onto the salvage vessel, which was fitted with glowing searchlights.

The 167-day mission was the longest for a crew capsule launched from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by the last astronauts at NASA’s Skylab station in 1974.

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 quiet time.

SpaceX had been training for a night return, 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.

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Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was in force to enforce an 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 out of the capsule, the astronauts planned to board a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane straight 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.

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