SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS) on 2 May 2021, 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, Florida, just before 3 a.m., ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company. It was an express trip home, lasting just 6 1/2 hours.
- 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.
- Their 167-day mission is the longest for astronauts launching from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by NASA’s final Skylab station crew in 1974.
- SpaceX had practised for a nighttime return, just in case, and even recovered its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in darkness.
- Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; it resembled a bright star streaking through the night sky.
- All four main parachutes could be seen deploying just before splashdown, which was also visible in the infrared.
- Apollo 8 – NASA’s first flight to the moon with astronauts ended with a predawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on 27 Dec. 1968.
- Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan, blown off course in a blizzard. That was it for nighttime crew splashdown until on 2 May 2021.
- For SpaceX’s first crew return in August, pleasure boaters swarmed the capsule, a safety risk. Once aboard the SpaceX recovery ship, the astronauts planned to hop on a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane straight to Houston for a reunion with their families.
- Their capsule, Resilience, will head back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment for SpaceX’s first private crew mission in September.
- NASA turned to private companies to service the space station after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011.
- SpaceX began supply runs in 2012 and, last May, launched its first crew, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia for astronaut transport. Boeing isn’t expected to launch astronauts until early next year.