The third long-duration astronaut team launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) safely returned to Earth early on Friday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida to end months of orbital research ranging from space-grown chilies to robots.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three U.S. NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency (ESA) crewmate from Germany parachuted into calm seas in darkness at the conclusion of a 23-hour-plus autonomous flight home from the ISS, Reuters reported on Friday.
The splashdown, at about 12:45 a.m. EDT (UAE time 8.45 PM Thursday), was carried live by a joint NASA-SpaceX webcast.
The Endurance crew, which began its stay in orbit on 11th November, consisted of American spaceflight veteran Tom Marshburn, 61, and three first-time astronauts – NASA’s Raja Chari, 44, and Kayla Barron, 34, and their ESA colleague Matthias Maurer, 52.
Camera shots from inside the crew compartment showed the astronauts strapped into their seats, garbed in helmeted white-and-black spacesuits. It was expected to take splashdown-response teams about an hour to reach the capsule bobbing in the water, hoist it onto the deck of a recovery vessel and open the hatch to let the astronauts out for their first breath of fresh air in nearly six months.
The newly returned astronauts were officially designated as NASA’s “Commercial Crew 3,” the third full-fledged, long-duration team of four that SpaceX has flown to the space station under contract for the U.S. space agency.
SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc who recently clinched a deal to buy Twitter, supplies the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules now flying NASA astronauts to orbit from U.S. soil.
The company also controls those flights and handles the splashdown recoveries, while NASA furnishes the crews and launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and manages U.S. space station operations.
California-based SpaceX has launched seven human spaceflights in all over the past two years – five for NASA and two for private ventures – as well as dozens of cargo and satellite payload missions since 2012.