Four astronauts inside a capsule built by SpaceX streaked across the Florida night sky like a meteor before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday night. The water landing capped an eventful six-month stay on the International Space Station.
The space travelers were part of a mission called Crew-2: Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA; Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA, Japan’s space agency; and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
“It’s great to be back to planet Earth,” Kimbrough, Crew-2’s commander, said to SpaceX mission control from inside the capsule after it and four large parachutes fluttered down into still waters near Pensacola, Florida. He and his fellow astronauts left the space station at 2.05 p.m. Eastern time Monday afternoon, and returned to Earth at 10:33 p.m.
Two parachutes deployed as planned to brake the capsule’s speed, then four more replaced them, with one remaining scrunched for nearly a minute before inflating. All chutes eventually deployed, plunking Crew Dragon into calm waters.
“The return looked spotless,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations chief, said in remarks on the agency’s livestream. She said engineering teams will examine the one “laggy” chute that did not immediately unfurl, adding that it was “behavior we’ve seen multiple times in other tests.”
The capsule, nicknamed Endeavour, bobbed in the ocean as recovery teams swarmed around and lifted it onto a recovery ship. Within about an hour of the spacecraft’s landing, crews helped the smiling astronauts out of the capsule one by one and onto stretchers as they started reacclimating to Earth’s gravity.
The trip was the fourth safe return to Earth for Crew Dragon, a gumdrop-shaped astronaut capsule developed by SpaceX as a replacement for the space shuttle with roughly $3 billion in funding from NASA. The spacecraft is expected to save the agency money, as NASA is no longer required to buy expensive seats for its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz rockets.
The journey was not without difficulties. Last week, NASA ordered the crew not to use the capsule’s toilet for the duration of their time on board. Engineers on the ground first detected a leaking toilet tube in another SpaceX capsule in September. The malfunction was confined to a compartment within the spacecraft’s floor, and did not affect the cabin.
But NASA declared the toilet of the Crew Dragon at the space station to be off-limits until it could be fixed. That meant that the crew either had to hold it, or use astronaut-grade diapers built into their flight suits as a contingency.
“Of course that’s suboptimal, but we are prepared to manage that in the time that we’re onboard Dragon on the way home,” McArthur, the Crew-2 mission pilot, said during a news conference Friday.
The crew managed many other challenges and responsibilities during their time in orbit.
Shortly after Crew-2 launched in April, SpaceX mission control alerted them that a piece of space debris was projected to whiz by the capsule. The astronauts were instructed to “immediately” get back in their flight suits and lower their helmet visors.
Nothing ever came close to the capsule, and the crew safely reached the space station on April 24.
Days later, US Space Command, which tracks objects in orbit, determined that the alert was the result of a “reporting error” and “that there was never a collision threat because there was no object at risk of colliding with the capsule.” Still, the incident renewed discussion about the growing threat of space debris and other clutter in low-Earth orbit.
In July, Russia launched a new science module to be attached to the space station’s Russian segment. Just after it docked, the module, named Nauka, erroneously fired a set of thrusters for roughly 15 minutes, spinning the football-field-size laboratory 1 1/2 revolutions before coming to a stop upside down.
The accident sent mission control teams in Houston and Moscow scrambling to get the station back in its normal position. The Crew-2 astronauts rushed back into their Crew Dragon capsule in case they needed to escape.
“In case something really bad did happen, we were ready to go and undock, if that was necessary,” Kimbrough said during Friday’s news conference. “Of course it wasn’t, thank goodness.”
A similar incident occurred in October involving another Russian spacecraft attached to the space station, although it seemed less severe than the first one.
While Crew-2 and its fellow space station occupants encountered hazards in orbit, they also kept busy with their typical duties of research and maintenance.
One component of their work even included some play: a taco night spiced up with freshly harvested chiles. The peppers were leftovers from a study examining crop cultivation in space. McArthur, who combined the chiles with fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes, called them the “best space tacos yet.”
The astronauts worked on hundreds of scientific investigations during their six-month stay aboard the orbital laboratory, from ultrasonic tweezers, which use sound to move small objects, to exploring real-time protein crystal growth under a microscope as part of a study into new drugs that can treat diseases.
The Crew-2 astronauts also witnessed the making of a feature length movie backed by Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. A Russian actress and a director launched to the space station on Oct. 5 for a 12-day shoot aboard the station for their movie, “The Challenge.” The film is about a mission to rescue an ailing astronaut, who was played by Oleg Novitsky, an actual Russian astronaut on the station.
When the Crew-2 astronauts departed Monday, only a single crew of three astronauts remained on the space station. It’s a small head count for the orbital lab, which has had as many as 13 astronauts aboard at once, but usually has seven crew members aboard these days. The last time the space station held just three astronauts was in April 2020.
Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut, and two Russian astronauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, will hold down the fort for at least four days until four more astronauts from NASA and SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission arrive Thursday at 7.10 p.m. Eastern time. Their arrival has been delayed by weather as well as what NASA described as one astronaut’s “minor medical issue,” which it said was unrelated to Covid-19.
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]