The fourth long-term astronaut team SpaceX launched to the International Space Station (ISS) returned safely to Earth on Friday, splashing out in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida after nearly six months of research at the orbiting outpost.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Freedom, carried three U.S. NASA astronauts and an Italian crew member from the European Space Agency, parachuting into the sea after a five-hour autonomous flight from the International Space Station.
Splashing under clear skies at 4:55pm ET (2055GMT), it was broadcast live on a joint NASA-SpaceX webcast.
Freedom began its stay in orbit on April 27. The crew included NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, 49, fellow Americans Jessica Watkins, 34, and Bob Hines, 47, and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti, 45, who was part of their International Space Station expedition. The Commander. Watkins became the first African-American woman to fly on a long-term International Space Station mission.
In less than an hour, the recovery team lifted the searing Crew Dragon onto the recovery boat, then opened the capsule’s side hatch, helping the four astronauts get their first fresh air in more than 24 weeks .
Still wearing black-and-white spacesuits with helmets, the four crew members, whose strength and balance teetered in 170 days of weightlessness, waved and snapped as they were hoisted onto special gurneys.
Greeting them on the deck of the ship was Meghan MacArthur, NASA’s eponymous veteran astronaut.
Each returning astronaut will undergo a routine medical examination on board before returning to Florida by helicopter.
Searing re-entry, then parachute
Before returning from orbit, the hot re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere created frictional heat that sent temperatures outside the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,930 degrees Celsius).
During the final stages of the descent, two sets of parachutes tumbled over the capsule, slowing the spacecraft’s descent to 15 miles (24 kilometers) per hour before hitting the water in Jacksonville, Florida.
During their stay on the space station, the crew orbited Earth 2,720 times — roughly every 90 minutes — recording about 72 million miles (116 million kilometers) in space, according to NASA.
The team, designated “Crew-4,” is the first SpaceX launch to the International Space Station since the private rocket company founded by Tesla Inc CEO Elton Musk began carrying NASA personnel in May 2020. Four full-fledged long-term astronaut teams.
For most ISS crews, their primary mission is science-based, including numerous experiments and technology demonstrations.
Highlights include studies of microgravity-induced changes in human cells, similar to those associated with aging, as well as documenting the effects of orbital diet improvements on immune function, gastrointestinal health, and nutritional markers.
They are also involved in studies of fire and fuel behavior in weightlessness, and growing plants in liquid and air-based growing materials instead of soil.
Their evacuation came a week after their replacement team, Crew-5, arrived on the space station — a Russian astronaut, a Japanese astronaut and two NASA crew members, including the first Native American woman in orbit.
Crew-5 remained on the ISS along with two other Russians and a third American who boarded a Soyuz flight to the ISS in September. One of the astronauts, Sergei Prokofiev, took over command of the International Space Station from Christo Foretti before Crew-4 left.
The International Space Station, which spans a U.S. soccer field, has been occupied since 2000 and is operated by a U.S.-Russia-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.