Four astronauts splashdown off Florida’s coast in SpaceX capsule

SpaceX in Low Earth Orbit – Courtesy: Shutterstock — Paopano

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Four astronauts in a SpaceX capsule returned to Earth on Monday, ending a 200-day space station mission that began last spring. 

Their capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, in pure darkness. Recovery boats with bright spotlights moved in quickly.

Their homecoming, which was eight hours after leaving the International Space Station, paved the way for the launch of SpaceX’s four replacements as early as Wednesday evening.

NASA switched the order due to bad weather and an astronaut’s undisclosed medical condition, as the newcomers were scheduled to launch first. The welcoming duties will now fall on the two Russians and single American who were left behind at the space station.

German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who is waiting to launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted before Monday’s afternoon docking that it was a shame the two crews were unable to overlap at the space station but “trust they will leave everything nice and tidy.” This will be SpaceX’s fourth crew flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.

NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, France’s Thomas Pesquet, and Japan’s Akihoko Hoshide should have been back by Monday morning, but high winds in the recovery zone delayed their trek back.

“One more night with this magical view. Who could complain? I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted alongside a brief video showing the space station illuminated against the pitch blackness of space and the gleaming city lights on the nighttime side of Earth.

From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is halfway through a one-year flight, said farewell to each of his departing comrades, telling McArthur “I’ll miss hearing your laughter in adjacent modules.”

Before leaving the area, the four astronauts took a spin around the space station and snapped a few pictures. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA’s shuttles used to do it regularly before their retirement a decade ago. The last Russian capsule fly-around was three years prior.

The ride back wasn’t the most comfortable. The toilet located in their capsule was broken so astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour return home. They shrugged it off as it was just one more challenge in their mission.

The first issue arose shortly after liftoff in April; Mission Control sent a warning regarding a piece of space junk that was threatening to collide with their capsule. Thankfully, this turned out to be a false alarm. Shortly after in July, thrusters on a newly arrived Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into an aggressive spin. The four astronauts on board took shelter in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to make a quick departure if necessary.

Despite some bumpy incidents, there were a couple of milestones: the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew, and four spacewalks to enhance the station’s solar power were completed.

The next crew will spend six months up there, welcoming rotating groups of tourists. A Japanese tycoon and his personal assistant will take a ride up in December, followed by three businessmen arriving via SpaceX in February.

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