SpaceX sent four astronauts back from the International Space Station on Sunday, leaving the first US crew in darkness since the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968.
The Dragon Capsule parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3am, ending Elon Musk’s second astronaut flight.
It is an express journey home that takes only 6 1/2 hours.
NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi headed home in the same Dragon capsule that sent them to the space station last November.
“Thank you for your hospitality” Hopkins radio as the capsule had unlocked 260 miles (420 km) over Mali.
Despite the early splashing moments, the Coast Guard used special patrols – and a spotlight – to keep night owl sightings away. The first SpaceX crew capsule was surrounded by a cruise ship last summer, which was at risk of safety.
SPACEX launched a NASA CREW for its mission to the ISS aboard a reused rocket after a delay.
The spacecraft commander Hopkins went into orbit with his crew on November 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Their replacement arrived last week on their very own Dragon capsule, the same one that launched SpaceX’s first crew member last spring.
The four of them should have returned earlier. But high offshore winds kept them at the space station for a few more days, SpaceX and NASA determined that the best weather was before dawn.
The delays prompted Glover to celebrate his 45th birthday in space on Friday.
“Gratitude, surprise, my connection was full and was inspired by these feelings on my birthday when my first mission to space was over,” Glover tweeted.
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Deploying a pilot on Saturday night led to seven astronauts at the space station: 3 Americans, 2 Russians, 1 Japanese and 1 French.