A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule soared back from outer space Sunday morning and made a parachute landing in the Gulf of Mexico, returning four astronauts from a record-setting mission to the International Space Station.
The astronauts — NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan’s space agency — had boarded their Crew Dragon capsule Friday afternoon, and they spent all night aboard the 13-foot-wide, fully autonomous capsule as it conducted a series of engine burns and maneuvers to prepare itself for reentry.
The spacecraft fired up its engines to slice back into the Earth’s thick inner atmosphere around 2 am ET, and the capsule deployed a series of billowing parachutes to slow its descent before splashing down off the coast of Panama City, Florida at 2:56 am.
The astronauts’ safe return marks the end to NASA and SpaceX’s landmark mission, dubbed Crew-1, which set a record as the longest time in space — over 5 months — by a crew that launched aboard an American-built spacecraft.
This is only the second time SpaceX and NASA have ever brought astronauts home aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft, following the historic return home of NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley from SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission in August. And Behnken had described reentry as the most gut-churning portion of the return trip.
The spacecraft becomes extremely hot due to the friction of air molecules rubbing against its exterior, though a thick heat shield will protect the astronauts inside as the vehicle roars toward its target: “It doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal,” Behnken told reporters last year.
A brigade of recovery ships were waiting to haul the Crew Dragon out of the ocean, moving quickly because the bobbing waves can cause severe seasickness for the astronauts. When asked what meal he was looking forward to upon his return home, Hopkins acknowledged during a press conference Monday that he likely won’t be feeling up to a gourmet meal.
“If I have an appetite, that’s going to be a bonus,” Hopkins said during a remote press conference Monday.
Glover made history with this mission: On top of it being his first flight to space, he became the first Black person ever to hold a long-duration crew assignment on the ISS.
“One thing that did really profoundly impact me was the very first time I got out of the seat after [our spacecraft] was safely in orbit, and I looked out the window and saw the Earth from 250 miles up,” Glover said during a remote press conference ahead of Saturday’s splashdown. “I will never forget that moment…It wasn’t about the view. It was how the view made me feel…the Earth is amazing. It’s beautiful. It protects us, and so we should work hard to protect it.”
Before their launch in November, the Crew-1 team named their Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience” in honor of the NASA and SpaceX teams that worked through a pandemic to get their mission off the ground as well as the global public, which grappled with Covid-19 as well as a widespread reckoning over racial injustices in the months prior to the Crew-1 launch.
Glover said the crew carried the Resilience mantra with them during their time in space, noting that he had to conduct an unexpected space walk for minor repairs to the exterior of the lab: “Resilience is one of the most important aspects in this business and exploration period,” Glover said Monday.
The United States spent nearly a decade without the ability to launch astronauts into space after the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, and NASA was forced to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get astronauts to the ISS, which the space agency says left the multibillion-dollar orbiting laboratory understaffed. As many as 13 astronauts were on board at one time in 2009. That number has occasionally dropped to as low as three on several occasions, which leaves fewer people to help run experiments and help keep the space station well maintained. With the latest SpaceX missions, however, the staff grew to 11.
SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon capsule under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which, for the first time in the space agency’s history, handed over much of the design, development and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing fixed-price contracts worth $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to get the job done. Development of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is still delayed because of major software issues detected during a test mission last year, but officials say that vehicle could be ready this year.
NASA has long awaited the ability to take full control over staffing the US-controlled portion of the ISS, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon entering operation has already drastically increased the amount of research that is able to be carried out aboard the two-decade-old laboratory.
The experiments that the Crew-1 astronauts worked on include research into how microgravity affects human heart tissue. They also conducted space walks to give upgrades and repairs to the space station’s exterior, and they grew radishes to build on studies designed to figure out how food might be grown to sustain deep-space exploration missions.