San Francisco Chronicle
SpaceX returns 4 astronauts in rare splashdown at night
CAPE CANAVERAL — SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot.
The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Fla., just before 3 a.m., ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company.
The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule — named Resilience — in which they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX’s Mission Control radioed moments after splashdown. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”
Within a halfhour of splashdown, the charred capsule was hoisted onto the recovery ship, with the astronauts exiting soon after. NASA and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the operation went. The company’s senior adviser, Hans Koenigsmann, said “it looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else.”
Commander Mike Hopkins was the first one out, doing a little dance as he emerged under the intense spotlights.
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together,” he told SpaceX flight controllers at company headquarters in Hawthorne (Los Angeles County). “Quite frankly, you all are changing the world. Congratulations.”
Saturday night’s undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.
“Earthbound!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the capsule’s pilot, tweeted after departing the station. “One step closer to family and home!”
Hopkins and NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the capsule’s pilot — along with NASA’s Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi — should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but high winds forced SpaceX to pass up a pair of daytime landing attempts. Managers switched to a rare splashdown in darkness to take advantage of calm weather.
Apollo 8 ended with a predawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on Dec. 27, 1968.