A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule returned from space Sunday morning, parachute landing in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing four astronauts back from a world-record-breaking flight to the International Space Station.
The astronauts — NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut — boarded their Crew Dragon capsule on Friday afternoon and spent the entire night aboard the 13-foot-wide, fully autonomous capsule as it performed a series of engine burns and manoeuvres to prepare for reentry.
Around 2 a.m. ET, the spacecraft fired up its engines to return to Earth’s thick inner atmosphere, and the capsule deployed a series of billowing parachutes to slow its descent before splashing down off the coast of Panama City, Florida.
The astronauts’ safe return brings an end to NASA and SpaceX’s historic Crew-1 flight, which set a new record for the longest time in space by a crew launched on an American-built spacecraft (over 5 months).
Following the landmark return home of NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley from SpaceX’s Demo-2 flight in August, this is only the second time SpaceX and NASA have ever taken astronauts home on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Reentry, according to Behnken, was the most harrowing part of the journey back.
Owing to the friction of air molecules rubbing against the spacecraft’s exterior, the spacecraft becomes incredibly hot, yet the astronauts within will be protected by a thick heat shield as the ship roars toward its target: “It doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a computer. It sounds like an animal, doesn’t it? “Last year, Behnken told reporters.
The Crew Dragon was being towed out of the ocean by a fleet of rescue ships, which were moving rapidly due to the bobbing waves, which could cause extreme seasickness for the astronauts. Hopkins admitted during a press conference Monday that he definitely won’t be feeling up to a gourmet meal when asked what meal he was looking forward to upon his return home.
“If I have an appetite, that’s going to be a bonus,” Hopkins said during a remote press conference Monday.
Glover made history with this mission: he was the first Black person to hold a long-duration crew assignment on the ISS, in addition to being his first trip to space.
“One thing that did profoundly impact me was the very first time I got out of the seat after [our spacecraft] was safely in orbit, and I looked out the window and saw the Earth from 250 miles up,” Glover said during a remote press conference ahead of Saturday’s splashdown. “I will never forget that moment…It wasn’t about the view. It was how the view made me feel…the Earth is amazing. It’s beautiful. It protects us, and so we should work hard to protect it.”
The Crew-1 team called their Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience” before their November launch in honour of the NASA and SpaceX teams who battled a pandemic to get their mission off the ground, as well as the global public, who grappled with Covid-19 and a widespread reckoning about racial injustices in the months leading up to the Crew-1 launch.
Glover said the crew lived by the Resilience mantra during their time in space, citing the need for an unforeseen spacewalk to make minor repairs to the lab’s exterior: “Resilience is one of the most critical things in this business and exploration era,” Glover said Monday.
Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the United States went nearly a decade without the opportunity to send astronauts into space, forcing NASA to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, which the space agency claims left the multibillion-dollar orbital laboratory understaffed. In 2009, there were up to 13 astronauts on board at any given time. On some occasions, the number has fallen to as low as three, leaving fewer people to help run experiments and keep the space station in good working order. However, with the most recent SpaceX flights, the team expanded to 11.