After a little more than 167 days in space and zipping through 2,688 orbits around the planet, Crew Dragon Resilience dropped into a darkened Gulf of Mexico early on Sunday morning off the coast of Panama City, Florida.
The flight back from the International Space Station went smoothly, with Dragon entering the atmosphere about 12 minutes before landing under four main parachutes. Shortly after entering the atmosphere, an infrared camera aboard a WB-57 aircraft was able to track the vehicle as it glided down to the surface. Sea states were remarkably calm as the vehicle, which resembled a toasted marshmallow following its rigorous reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, was hoisted aboard the GO Navigator recovery boat.
Inside, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were healthy and happy after spending nearly six months living aboard the International Space Station and feeling the effects of Earth’s gravity again.
“I would just like to say, quite frankly, y’all are changing the world,” Hopkins radioed to SpaceX’s mission control center in Hawthorne, California. “Congratulations. It’s great to be back.”
With this mission, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system completed its second overall flight to space, bringing to six the total number of astronauts brought to orbit and back safely. During this flight, Crew Dragon very nearly doubled the record for mission duration flown by a US-crewed spacecraft, previously held by the Apollo capsule that flew an 84-day mission in 1974 to facilitate the final crew increment on the Skylab space station.
This landing was also the first nighttime splashdown for a spacecraft since the Apollo 8 landing in December 1968. That landing occurred in the Pacific Ocean at 5:51 am local time, before sunrise. Mission managers said the favorable forecast for Sunday morning, with virtually no waves and very light winds, played into the decision to land Dragon after dark.
The nearly flawless nighttime recovery—just 54 minutes from landing to the exit of all four astronauts from inside the vehicle—was all the more impressive as this was just the second time SpaceX and NASA have brought back a crew from space inside Dragon.
“The recovery operations tonight were phenomenal,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s manager of the commercial crew program, which oversees Crew Dragon flights for the space agency.
Unlike the first Crew Dragon mission that returned to Earth in August 2020, named Demo-2, there were no traces of hypergolic propellant on the exterior of the spacecraft this time, Stich said. The US Coast Guard also helped keep any leisure boats out of the recovery area. (It probably also helped that, unlike the sunny afternoon return of the Demo-2 mission, it was 3 am local time when Resilience splashed down.)
SpaceX was eager to get Resilience back and to start the refurbishment process. In the coming weeks, the company will remove this spacecraft’s docking adapter, which is used to connect with the International Space Station, and replace it with a dome window. Then, the vehicle will be used to launch a private customer mission, Inspiration4, that will take four civilians into orbit for three days. This launch could occur as soon as mid-September.
Senior adviser for flight reliability at SpaceX, Hans Koenigsmann, said the company’s recovery teams have worked hard to get Dragon out of the ocean quickly. “It’s basically practice, practice, practice,” he said. “This was an awesome operation. I noticed the professionalism and how smooth it was. It looked like a professional race car pit stop. Everyone was in their right place.”
Early on Sunday morning everyone was indeed in the right place, including four astronauts in the arms of loved ones back on Earth.
Listing image by NASA