ORLANDO, Fla. — The first six-month rotation of an International Space Station crew to be carried up and returned to Earth by commercial partner SpaceX ended in the early morning hours Sunday.
The Crew-1 team of NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and, Shannon Walker plus Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, left on board the Crew Dragon capsule named Resilience late Saturday from the station for its 6 ½-hour trip ending with a 2:56 a.m. splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida near Panama City.
“On behalf of the NASA and SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said a SpaceX commentator after splashdown. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”
“We’ll take those miles,” responded commander Hopkins. “Are they transferable?”
Mission Control replied that the astronauts would have to check with SpaceX’s marketing department about that.
The capsule hit its target within a minute of the planned touchdown. Responding ships were on hand surrounding the capsule with SpaceX recovery vessel Go Navigator on hand soon after to hoist it out of the water.
The hatch opened about 45 minutes after splashdown after Hopkins thanked the SpaceX team for a safe landing.
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together,” he said. “Finally I’d just like to say, quite frankly, ya’ll are changing the world. It’s great to be back.”
The four astronauts left the capsule and were taken for additional medical checks. They were placed on stretchers, which is normal for those returning to Earth’s gravity after long periods in space. The quartet were flown by helicopter to Panama City and were headed to Johnson Space Center for a reunion with their families.
“Re-rentry’s hard, and the spacecraft was in beautiful condition, but you just worry as you as you go through the six minutes of com blackout,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human space exploration directorate, at a press conference later Sunday. “It was so great to hear Mike’s voice and then see those drogues and the mains deploy so wonderfully and the vehicle just come softly down and back to Earth.”
Video of the landing showed just a few boats surrounding the capsule as it landed on the calm surface of the Gulf, unlike the crowd of civilian boats that loitered around the landing of Demo-2 in August.
“We had a couple lessons learned from the Demo-2 mission,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager Steve Stich. “Last time you may remember we had some boats in the area. Today, the United States Coast Guard had several assets on scene and patrolled that area. We had no leisure boats within the ellipse that we cleared for landing. So that was much, much better than last time.”
Stich said NASA was able to recover the two drogue and four main parachutes as well. The turnaround to pick up the vessel from the water, and get the astronauts out of the capsule went much faster than Demo-2. NASA and SpaceX officials credited the continued practice from the recovery teams and the calm weather that comes with a night landing.
“It looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else. Everybody was at the right spot and did the right things,” said Space’x senior advisor Hans Koenigsmann. “Everything came together and resulted in these record-breaking times.”
The crew got into the vehicle Saturday evening to leave behind seven other members of the ISS expedition, leaving about four days later that originally planned because of weather-related delays.
The return comes 168 days in space for the four-person crew, the longest ever for a crew of a U.S. spacecraft, doubling the 84 days in space by the Skylab 4 crew of 1974.
The mission lifted off from KSC’s Launch Pad 39A atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Nov. 15, 2020.
Glover became the first Black person to serve for an extended expedition on the ISS. On Saturday, Glover commented on the commitment by NASA to include among the Artemis missions in the next decade a person of color to walk on the lunar surface.
“What I think it says is that the administration, the agency is doing what it can to continue to explore space, to do it safely, to do it effectively but also to do it inclusively in a way that represents the best and brightest of America,” he said.
For Glover, whose nickname Ike stands for “I know everything,” the mission was his first in space while Hopkins and Walker had both previously served on the ISS and Noguchi had flown on the space shuttle and served on the ISS on two previous spaceflights.
“As the only first-time flyer of the group, every single thing we’ve done up here has been the first time I’ve been able to do that,” Glover said. “One thing, the very first time I got out of the seat, after Resilience was safely in orbit and I looked out the window and saw the Earth from 250 miles up, I will never forget that moment.”
The four from Crew-1 were joined on the ISS last Saturday by four passengers of the Crew-2 mission, which flew up to the station on board the SpaceX Crew Dragon named Endeavour. It was the first time two commercial crew capsules had been at the station at the same time.
The 11 people on the station at the same time isn’t the most ever for the ISS, which has on several occasions during the space shuttle era reached a population of 13. The station has only seven permanent sleeping quarters on board, though, but Hopkins spent the entirety of his six-month stay sleeping in the Crew Dragon. The departure of Crew-1 brings the ISS population back down to seven.