One day after, four astronauts plunged back to Earth aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule early Friday, streaking across southern Mexico to an on-target splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa to close out a six-month mission.
With Crew-3 commander Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn monitoring the automated descent, the Crew Dragon "Endurance" fired its braking thrusters for nearly eight minutes starting at 11:53 p.m. EDT, slowing the ship by about 120 mph to drop out of orbit.
After a 38-minute freefall, the capsule slammed into the discernible atmosphere at nearly 5 miles per second, streaking high above southern Mexico and out over the Gulf on a southwest to northeast trajectory, rapidly decelerating in a blaze of atmospheric friction.
Eight minutes later, right on time, the Crew Dragon's four main parachutes unfurled and fully inflated, lowering the capsule to a smooth splashdown at 12:43 a.m. to close out its maiden voyage.
"Thanks for letting us take Endurance on its shakedown cruise," Chari radioed flight controllers. "Looking forward to watching many more flights of Endurance in the future. It was a great ride. Enjoyed working with the NASA and SpaceX teams. Thanks for getting us up to the space station and back safely."
A moment later, he joked: "Only one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy!"
SpaceX crews stationed nearby with high-speed recovery boats quickly raced to the gently bobbing capsule to check on the crew while a company ship moved in to pull the Crew Dragon on board.
Chari, Marshburn, submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer were carried out one at a time on stretchers, standard procedure for crews returning to Earth and the uncomfortable tug of gravity after a half year in weightlessness.
All four looked in good shape, smiling and waving to the ship's crew as they were carried inside for initial medical checks. SpaceX was expected to fly them to shore via helicopter later in the morning for a flight back to Houston and the Johnson Space Center aboard a NASA jet.
"I think we're all really looking forward to seeing our loved ones, our family and friends on the ground who were so instrumental in supporting us throughout our lives and getting us to this point," Barron, making her first flight, said during an orbital news conference last month.
"And then, of course, we're starting to think about all the different things we might want to eat and drink when we get home."
Left behind in orbit were their replacements - Crew 4 commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Bob Hines, Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti - and three Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov.
Lindgren and his crewmates arrived at the space station last Wednesday, enjoying a one-week "direct handover" with their Crew-3 colleagues, who showed them the ins and outs of station operations before undocking early Thursday to begin a 23-and-a-half hour trip back to Earth.
With splashdown Friday, Chari and company spent 176 days two hours and 40 minutes off the planet since launch from the Kennedy Space Center last Nov. 10, logging 2,832 complete orbits covering 75 million miles.
Over the course of the mission, Marshburn, a three-flight veteran, and Maurer participated in one spacewalk each while Barron and Chari carried out two. Eight spacecraft arrived at the station during their stay and seven departed, including a Crew Dragon carrying the first all-commercial crew to the lab complex last month.
"We've had a lot of fun showing them around, showing them how to live and work in the space station," Marshburn said earlier. "They've been great crewmates, they've been very kind and gracious with us as well. And so it's been a wonderful week."
But getting home was tops on the crew's agenda Friday.
"I can't wait to see my wife and kids, giving them all hugs," Chari said. "I get goosebumps just thinking about that moment. Just seeing the pictures of my kids, how much they've grown in six months since they're younger, it's pretty amazing and makes you realize how much you've missed."
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