SpaceX capsule departs station as four astronauts head home

2 May 2021, 02:34

This image from video provided by NASA shows the SpaceX capsule as it departs the International Space Station on Saturday
SpaceX-Returning Astronauts. Picture: PA

The trip home was expected to take only six-and-a-half hours.

A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts departed the International Space Station late on Saturday, aiming for a rare night time splashdown to end the company’s second crew flight.

It would be the first US splashdown in darkness since Apollo 8′s crew returned from the moon in 1968.

NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi headed home in the same Dragon capsule that delivered them to the space station last November. The ride back was expected to take just 6-1/2 hours.

“Thanks for your hospitality,” Mr Hopkins radioed as the capsule undocked 260 miles above Mali.

SpaceX Astronauts Return
Expedition 64 Flight Engineers and SpaceX Crew-1 members (from left): Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi (NASA/AP)

SpaceX targeted a splashdown around 3am local time on Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard deployed extra patrols — and spotlights — to keep any night-owl sightseers away. The capsule of the first SpaceX crew was surrounded by pleasure boaters last summer, posing a safety risk.

Mr Hopkins, the spacecraft commander, rocketed into orbit with his crew on November 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre. Their replacements arrived a week ago aboard their own Dragon capsule — the same one that launched SpaceX’s first crew last spring.

The four should have been back by now, but high offshore wind kept them at the space station for a few extra days. SpaceX and NASA determined the best weather would be before dawn.

The delays allowed Mr Glover to celebrate his 45th birthday in space Friday.

“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,” he tweeted.

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

By Press Association