Four astronauts returned to Earth on Monday, riding home with SpaceX to end the 200-day space station mission that began last spring.
Their capsule soared across the late night sky like a bright meteor before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. The recovery boats moved swiftly with the spotlight on.
“Welcome to Planet Earth, from SpaceX,” SpaceX Mission Control broadcast over the radio from Southern California. Within an hour, all four astronauts were out of the capsule, exchanging fists with the team on the recovery ship.
Their homecoming – just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station – paved the way for SpaceX’s Wednesday night launch of four of its replacements.
The newcomers were earlier scheduled to launch, but NASA changed the order due to bad weather and an unknown medical condition of an astronaut. The reception is now left to the American and two Russians on the space station alone.
Ahead of Monday afternoon’s undocking, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who awaits launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted that it was a shame the two crew members would not overlap on the space station, but ” We are sure you will leave everything nice and clean.” This will be SpaceX’s fourth crewed flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan MacArthur, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and France’s Thomas Pesquet were supposed to return Monday morning, but high winds in the recovery zone delayed their return.
“Another night with this magical scene. Who can complain? I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted Sunday alongside a brief video that shows the space station illuminated against the blackness of space and the twinkling city lights of Earth at night.
From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei — in the middle of a year-long flight — bids farewell to each of his departing friends, saying to MacArthur, “I will miss hearing your laughter in the adjacent module.”
Before leaving the neighborhood, the four circled the space station, taking pictures. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA shuttles used to do this all the time before their retirement a decade ago. The last Russian capsule fly-around was three years ago.
It was not the most comfortable ride. The toilet in their capsule was broken, and so the astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour journey home. He brushed it off last weekend as just one more challenge in his mission.
The first issue arose shortly after their April liftoff; Mission Control warned that a piece of space junk was threatening to hit their capsule. It turned out to be a false alarm. Then in July, thrusters on a newly arriving Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into a spin. The four astronauts took refuge in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to depart hastily if necessary.
Among the excited milestones: four spacewalks to boost the station’s solar power, a film-making trip by a Russian film crew, and the first space crop of chile peppers.
The next team will also spend six months there, welcoming back-to-back groups of tourists. A Japanese tycoon and his personal assistant will receive a lift from the Russian space agency in December, followed by three businessmen via SpaceX in February. SpaceX’s first privately chartered flight bypassed the space station in September.
NASA’s Cathy Leiders, chief of space operations, said engineers will evaluate the sluggish inflation of one of the four main parachutes, something seen in testing when the lines are bent together. Overall, however, “the return seemed immaculate.”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to see all four of the crew members back on Earth,” she said, “and I look forward to launching another set of four this week.”