A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that returned four astronauts to Earth splashed off the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday.
Boats retrieved the spaceship and crew after their six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The crew reported that they were feeling fine, NASA said.
The capsule ejected at 2:56 a.m. (06:56 GMT) in the dark in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida after a six and a half hour flight from the ISS. High-altitude research aircraft showed.
It was the first U.S. splashdown in the dark since the Apollo 8 crew returned from the moon in 1968.
The astronauts should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but strong offshore winds forced SpaceX to miss two landing attempts a day. Managers switched to a rare splash of water in the dark to take advantage of the calm weather.
All four main parachutes were in action shortly before the hosed down.
Apollo 8 – NASA’s first flight to the moon with astronauts – ended with a pre-dawn splash in the Pacific near Hawaii on December 27, 1968.
Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts landed in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan that had drifted off course in a blizzard. That’s it for nightly crew splashdowns – until Sunday.
“Thank you for flying SpaceX”
Astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi from Japan went into space last November as a crew on the first fully functional mission to the ISS aboard a vehicle from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has become NASA’s preferred commercial transport partner went.
“We welcome you back to planet earth and thank you for flying SpaceX”, the SpaceX Mission Control beamed moments after the hosed down. “For those of you who have signed up for our frequent flyer program, you have earned 68 million miles on this trip.”
“We’re going to take these miles,” said spaceship commander Hopkins. “Are they transferable?” SpaceX replied that the astronauts would need to check with the company’s marketing department.
The 167-day mission was the longest for a crew capsule launched from the United States. The previous record of 84 days was set in 1974 by the last astronauts at NASA’s Skylab station.
Seven astronauts remain on the ISS, including a new crew of four who arrived last week on another SpaceX vehicle. Previously, two American astronauts made a test mission to the ISS in May and stayed for two months.
This was the first launch of the ISS from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. In contrast to NASA, it was also the first crewed mission carried out by a private company.
Until then, US astronauts had made trips to the ISS on board Russian spaceships.