SpaceX: Record-breaking space mission ends in rare night splashdown

2 May 2021, 10:01

By Joe Cook

Four astronauts have returned to Earth from the International Space Station in a SpaceX Dragon capsule, after a record-setting 167-day mission that ended with a rare nighttime splashdown.

The crew landed off the coast of Panama City, Florida, at 2.56am ET (7.56am BST), making it the first US splashdown at night since Apollo 8's crew returned from the moon in 1968.

The fully autonomous SpaceX capsule conducted a series of engine burns before opening multiple parachutes to slow its descent.

NASA's Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi returned from the International Space Station (ISS) in the same Dragon capsule that delivered them last November.

All four of the crew arrived safely back on Earth after a 6h30 trip from the ISS.
All four of the crew arrived safely back on Earth after a 6h30 trip from the ISS. Picture: PA

As the capsule headed towards the earth, Mr Glover tweeted: "Earthbound! That’s a wrap on my mission aboard [the ISS]. One step closer to family and home!"

Mr Hopkins added: "Said goodbye to our crewmates and the [ISS]. Time to buckle up for our ride back home. Go Crew-1!"

The 167-day mission was the longest for US-launched astronauts at the space station, almost doubling the 84 day record set in 1974.

The astronauts were taken from the capsule onto a recovery boat before being flown back to shore, where they will board a plane to fly back to NASA's Houston base.

Spotlights and extra patrols were deployed by the Coast Guard to deter sightseers. The capsule of the first SpaceX crew was surrounded by pleasure boaters last summer, posing a safety risk.

The decision was taken to execute a nighttime splashdown after high winds delayed the astronauts return by a number of days, with the weather expected to be more favourable before dawn.

However, the delays did allow Mr Glover to celebrate 45th birthday in space on Friday, tweeting: "Gratitude, wonder, connection. I'm full of and motivated by these feelings on my birthday, as my first mission to space comes to an end."

Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed.
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed. Picture: PA
NASA staff watch a dolphin swims by as they wait for the SpaceX craft to land.
NASA staff watch a dolphin swims by as they wait for the SpaceX craft to land. Picture: PA

It comes as the private space race steps up in America. NASA has contracted companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX to launch from America, with aerospace company Boeing also expected to begin manned missions early next year.

Saturday night's undocking left seven astronauts at the space station: three Americans, two Russians, one Japanese and one French.