SpaceX Mission Control radioed, “Those of you participating in our frequent flyer programme has won 68 million miles on this voyage.”
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA — On Sunday, SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station, marking the first time a US crew has splashed down in the dark since the Apollo 8 moonshot.
Just before 3 a.m., the Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, bringing Elon Musk’s company’s second astronaut flight to a close.
It was a quick trip back, taking just 6 1/2 hours.
Three Americans and one Japanese astronaut flew back in the same Resilience capsule that they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
Moments after splashdown, SpaceX’s Mission Control radioed, “We welcome you back to planet Earth and thank you for flying SpaceX.” “Those of you who are members of our frequent flyer program has accumulated 68 million miles on this trip.”
Mike Hopkins, the captain of the spacecraft, said, “We’ll take those miles.” “Are they transferable?” says the narrator. The astronauts will have to consult with SpaceX’s marketing department, SpaceX answered.
The charred capsule, which resembled a giant toasted marshmallow, was hoisted onto the rescue ship, which was fitted with bright spotlights, within a half-hour of splashdown.
The mission was the longest for a crew capsule launched from the United States, lasting 167 days. NASA’s last Skylab station astronauts set the previous record of 84 days in 1974.
The undocking on Saturday night left seven people on the space station, four of whom arrived through SpaceX a week ago.
“Earthbound!” exclaims the speaker. After leaving the station, NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the capsule’s pilot, tweeted. “One move closer to family and home!” exclaims the narrator.
Hopkins and Glover, as well as NASA’s Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, were supposed to return to Earth last Wednesday, but SpaceX had to cancel two daytime landing attempts due to strong offshore winds. To take advantage of the calm weather, managers moved to a rare splashdown in darkness.
SpaceX had prepared for a nighttime landing in case it was needed, and had even retrieved its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in the dark. As it re-entered the atmosphere, infrared cameras monitored the capsule, which looked like a bright star streaking across the night sky.
Just before splashdown, all four main parachutes could be seen deploying, which was also apparent in the infrared.
Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was on the scene in force, enforcing an 11-mile no-go zone around the bobbing Dragon capsule. Pleasure boaters swarmed the spacecraft for SpaceX’s first crew return in August, posing a safety risk.
The astronauts decided to board a helicopter for the short trip to shore, then board a plane to Houston for a reunion with their families once they were out of the capsule.
Resilience, their spacecraft, will return to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment in preparation for SpaceX’s first private crew flight in September. The docking system for the space station will be removed, and a brand new domed window will be installed in its place.
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