A 200-day space station mission that began last spring came to an end as four astronauts strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule returned to earth safely on Monday (November 8). This ended the six-month NASA science mission aboard the International Space Station and a daylong flight home.
The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavour, parachuted into the sea as planned just after 10.30 pm EST on Monday (around 9am on Tuesday, November 9), following a fiery re-entry descent through Earth's atmosphere carried live by a NASA webcast. Live thermal video imaging captured a glimpse of the capsule streaking like a meteor through the night sky over the Gulf minutes before splashdown.
Applause was heard from the flight control center as the four main parachutes inflated above the capsule as it drifted down toward the Gulf surface, slowing its speed to about 15 miles per hour (24 kmph) before dropping gently into the calm sea.
"Endeavour, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth," a voice from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles was heard telling the crew as a safe splashdown was confirmed. "It's great to be back," one of the astronauts radioed in reply.
Operating autonomously, the spacecraft began its eight-hour return voyage earlier in the day with a 90-minute fly-around of the space station as the crew snapped a series of survey photographs of the orbiting outpost, circling the globe some 250 miles (400 km) high. The Crew Dragon then proceeded through a series of maneuvers over the course of the day to bring it closer to Earth and line up the capsule for its final nighttime descent. It wasn't the most comfortable ride back. The toilet in their capsule was broken, and so the astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour trip home. They shrugged it off late last week as just one more challenge in their mission.
The first issue arose shortly after their April liftoff; Mission Control warned a piece of space junk was threatening to collide with their capsule. It turned out to be a false alarm. Then in July, thrusters on a newly arrived Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into a spin. The four astronauts took shelter in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to make a hasty departure if necessary.
Among the upbeat milestones: Four spacewalks to enhance the station's solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers. The crew, which spent 199 days in space during this mission, was made up of two NASA astronauts - mission commander Shane Kimbrough, 54, and pilot Megan McArthur, 50 - along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and fellow mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, 43, a French engineer from the European Space Agency. They were lofted to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off on April 23 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It was the third crew launched into orbit under NASA's fledgling public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also founded electric car maker Tesla Inc. The returning team was designated "Crew 2" because it marks the second "operational" space station team that NASA has launched aboard a SpaceX capsule since resuming human spaceflights from American soil last year, after a nine-year hiatus at the end of the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011.
The replacement team, "Crew 3," was originally slated to fly to the space station at the end of October, but that launch has been delayed by weather problems and an unspecified medical issue involving one of the four crew members. The next crew will also spend six months up there, welcoming back-to-back groups of tourists. A Japanese tycoon and his personal assistant will get a lift from the Russian Space Agency in December, followed by three businessmen arriving via SpaceX in February. SpaceX's first privately chartered flight, in September, bypassed the space station.