Astronauts return to Earth for first night landing since Apollo 8 mission

Astronauts return to Earth for first night landing since Apollo 8 mission

Florida – A SpaceX spacecraft returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Sunday with four astronauts aboard, in the first nighttime landing of a manned spacecraft in the United States since the Apollo 8 lunar mission.

The Dragon capsule deployed its parachutes to drop into the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m., ending the second manned flight of Elon Musk’s company.

It was an express return trip, barely 6 and a half hours.

The astronauts, three Americans and one Japanese, were flying back in the same capsule – called Resilience – in which they took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.

Its 167-day mission is the longest ever by astronauts from the United States. The previous record of 84 days was set by the last crew of NASA’s Skylab station in 1974.

With his departure Saturday night, seven people remain on the space station, four of whom arrived a week earlier on a SpaceX flight.

It is the first time in more than 20 years that astronauts from the American, European and Japanese space agencies have flown together.

“To Earth!” Tweeted NASA astronaut Victor Glover after leaving the station. “One step closer to family and home!”

DELAYED RETURN

Glover, like his NASA colleagues Mike Hopkin and Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were due to return to Earth last Wednesday.

But offshore winds forced Space X to forego two possible daytime landing attempts. Those responsible for the project opted for an unusual landing in the dark to take advantage of the quiet time.

The Ingenuity helicopter, which reached Mars inside the Perseverance rover robot, managed to fly longer this time.

SpaceX had rehearsed a nightly return just in case and even recovered its last cargo capsule at night in the Gulf of Mexico. Infrared cameras followed the capsule as it reentered the atmosphere, as it streaked across the night sky like a bright star.

All four parachutes were deployed just before landing, also visible in infrared images.

The Apollo 8 mission, NASA’s first manned flight to the Moon, ended with a splashdown in the Pacific, near Hawaii, before dawn on December 27, 1968. Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts It fell at night on a partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan after being blown off course by a blizzard.

NASA hid a message in the parachute of the Perseverance robot, which reached the Martian surface on February 18. To see more from Telemundo, visit https://www.nbc.com/networks/telemundo

Despite the hour, the Coast Guard made a huge effort to maintain the 11-mile exclusion zone around the capsule. SpaceX’s first manned return brought together many civilian vessels, posing a security risk.

Once aboard the SpaceX recovery ship, the astronauts planned to make the short trip to shore by helicopter, then fly to Houston to reunite with their families.

Its capsule, the Resilience, will return to Cape Canaveral to be refitted for SpaceX’s first private manned mission in September. The space station’s docking mechanism will be replaced by a new dome-shaped window.

The robot captured the photo in front of a rocky outcrop measuring around 20 feet high, which the Curiosity team has named “Mont Mercou” after a mountain in France.

Bruce Dorminey
I'm a science journalist and host of Cosmic Controversy (brucedorminey.podbean.com) as well as author of "Distant Wanderers: the Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System."  I primarily cover aerospace and astronomy. I’m a former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper who has reported from six continents. A 1998 winner in the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace Journalist of the Year Awards (AJOYA), I’ve interviewed Nobel Prize winners and written about everything from potato blight to dark energy. Previously, I was a film and arts correspondent in New York and Europe, primarily for newspaper outlets like the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe and Canada's Globe & Mail. Recently, I've contributed to Scientific American.com, Nature News, Physics World, and Yale Environment 360.com. I'm a current contributor to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope and a correspondent for Renewable Energy World. Twitter @bdorminey