On Monday, four astronauts returned to Earth aboard SpaceX, bringing a 200-day space station mission that began last spring to a close.
Before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, their capsule raced through the late night sky like a sparkling meteor. With lighting, recovery boats moved in fast.
SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California, “Welcome return to Planet Earth on behalf of SpaceX.” All four astronauts were out of the capsule within an hour, sharing fist bumps with the rescue ship’s crew.
Their return to Earth, which came barely eight hours after they left the International Space Station, cleared the door for SpaceX to launch their four successors as early as Wednesday night.
The newbies were supposed to launch first, but NASA changed the sequence due to severe weather and an unnamed medical problem of one of the astronauts. The lone American and two Russians left behind aboard the space station will now be in charge of greeting visitors.
Prior to the undocking on Monday afternoon, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who is awaiting launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted that it was a shame the two crews wouldn’t be able to spend time together aboard the space station, but “we hope you’ll leave everything neat and tidy.” In just over a year and a half, this will be SpaceX’s fourth crew voyage for NASA.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, as well as Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, were scheduled to return Monday morning but were delayed due to strong winds in the recovery zone.
“Another night with this incredible view.” Who could possibly object? I’m going to miss our spaceship! ” Pesquet tweeted on Sunday, accompanied by a short video of the space station lighted against the blackness of space and the dazzling city lights on Earth’s nightside.
“I’ll miss hearing your laughing in nearby modules,” NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei said McArthur as he waved farewell to each of his leaving pals from the space station, where he was halfway through a one-year mission.
Before departing the neighborhood, the four went for a photo shoot surrounding the space station. This was a first for SpaceX; before their retirement a decade ago, NASA’s shuttles did it all the time. The last time Russia sent a capsule across the world was three years ago.
It wasn’t the most pleasant return journey. Because their capsule’s toilet was damaged, the astronauts had to rely on diapers for the eight-hour journey home. They dismissed it as merely another difficulty in their goal late last week.
The first problem emerged shortly after their April launch, when Mission Control received word that a piece of space trash was on its way to collide with their spacecraft. It was later shown to be a false alarm. Then, in July, thrusters on a recently arrived Russian lab accidentally activated, spinning the station. The four astronauts sought refuge in their docked SpaceX spacecraft, prepared to leave quickly if required.
Four spacewalks to improve the station’s solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film team, and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers are among the positive achievements.
The next crew will likewise spend six months up there, greeting groups of tourists one after the other. In December, the Russian Space Agency will transport a Japanese entrepreneur and his personal assistant, followed by three businesspeople arriving via SpaceX in February. The space station was skipped by SpaceX’s first privately chartered journey, which took place in September.
Engineers will look at the lagging inflation of one of the four primary parachutes, which is shown in testing when the lines clump together, according to NASA’s Kathy Lueders, chief of space operations. “The return, on the whole, appeared immaculate,” says the narrator.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to have all four crew members back on Earth,” she said, “and I’m looking forward to launching another set of four crew members this week.”