The third SpaceX long-duration astronaut crew returned to Earth safely early on Friday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, after months of orbital study on everything from space-grown chilies to robotics.
Endurance, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three US NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency (ESA) crewmate from Germany, parachuted into calm waters in the dark after a 23-hour-plus autonomous voyage home from the International Space Station.
A joint NASA-SpaceX webcast broadcast live thermal-camera imagery of the splashdown at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT).
The Endurance crew included Tom Marshburn, 61, an American spaceflight veteran, and three first-time astronauts: NASA’s Raja Chari, 44, and Kayla Barron, 34, as well as their ESA colleague Matthias Maurer, 52.
Moments after splashdown, Chari could be heard radioing mission control.
The heat-scorched Crew Dragon was hauled onto a recovery ship in less than an hour before the capsule’s side door was opened and the four astronauts were taken out one by one for the first time in over six months.
They were helped onto special gurneys in white and black spacesuits, their strength and equilibrium wobbly following 175 days in zero gravity. They waved and offered thumbs-up to cameras.
Before being taken back to Florida via helicopter, each had to have a normal medical examination onboard the ship.
The re-entry plummet through Earth’s atmosphere was scorching, creating frictional heat that pushed temperatures outside the capsule rising to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,930 degrees Celsius).
Before hitting the ocean off the coast of Tampa, Florida, two sets of parachutes billowed open above the capsule, slowing its drop to around 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour).
Over the Webcast, applause could be heard from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles.
The freshly returned astronauts have been dubbed NASA’s “Commercial Crew 3,” the third full-fledged, long-duration team of four that SpaceX has carried to the International Space Station under contract for NASA.
SpaceX, created in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), which recently agreed to acquire Twitter (TWTR.N), provides the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules that are now transporting NASA astronauts to space from U.S. territory.
NASA provides the personnel and launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and administers US space station operations, while the corporation controls those missions and performs splashdown recoveries.
Since 2012, California-based SpaceX has flown seven human spaceflights, five for NASA and two for commercial companies, as well as dozens of cargo and satellite payload missions.
Crew 3 returned to Earth with around 550 pounds (250 kg) of cargo, which included ISS research samples.
Apart from doing standard maintenance while 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, the astronauts participated in hundreds of research experiments and technological demonstrations.
Studies of genetic expression in cotton cells cultivated in space, gaseous flame combustion in microgravity, and bacterium DNA sequences within the station were among the highlights. Crew members also conducted space physics and materials science experiments, as well as testing new robot equipment and harvesting chili peppers grown in orbit.
Barron and Chari went into space to prepare the station for the next in a series of new lightweight roll-out solar arrays, which would eventually be deployed on the proposed Gateway outpost orbiting the moon.
Crew 3 has returned to the space station just over a week after welcoming their successor team, Crew 4, onboard. Oleg Artemyev, one of the three Russian cosmonauts presently stationed there, took leadership of the ISS from Marshburn in a transfer before Endurance left early Thursday.