Four astronauts strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule have splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast, ending a six-month Nasa mission onboard the International Space Station and a daylong flight home.
The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavour, parachuted into the sea as planned just after 10:30pm EST on Monday, after a fiery re-entry descent through Earth’s atmosphere broadcast live by a Nasa webcast.
Live thermal video imaging captured a glimpse of the capsule streaking like a meteor through the night sky over the Gulf minutes before splashdown.
Applause was heard from the flight control centre as the four main parachutes inflated above the capsule as it drifted down toward the Gulf surface, slowing its speed to about 15 mph (24 kph) before dropping gently into the calm sea.
“Endeavour, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” a voice from the SpaceX flight control centre in suburban Los Angeles was heard telling the crew as a safe splashdown was confirmed.
Within an hour, all four astronauts were out of the capsule, exchanging fist bumps with the team on the recovery ship. “It’s great to be back,” one of the astronauts radioed in reply.
Operating autonomously, the spacecraft began its eight-hour return voyage earlier in the day with a 90-minute fly-around of the space station as the crew snapped a series of survey photographs of the orbiting outpost, circling the globe 250 miles (400 km) high.
The Crew Dragon then proceeded through a series of manoeuvres over the course of the day to bring it closer to Earth and line up the capsule for its final night-time descent.
Propelled by one last ignition of its forward rocket thrusters for a “de-orbit burn,” the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at about 17,000 mph (27,359 kph) for a freefall toward the ocean below, during which crew communications were lost for several minutes.
Intense friction generated as the capsule plunges through the atmosphere sends temperatures surrounding the outside the vehicle soaring to 3,500 degrees fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius). The re-entry friction also slows the capsule’s descent before parachutes are deployed.
The astronauts’ flight suits are designed to keep them cool if the cabin warms up, while a heat shield protects the capsule from incinerating on re-entry.
The crew, which spent 199 days in space during this mission, was made up of two Nasa astronauts – mission commander Shane Kimbrough, 54, and pilot Megan McArthur, 50 – along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and fellow mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, 43, a French engineer from the European Space Agency.
They were lofted to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off on 23 April from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
It was the third crew launched into orbit under Nasa’s fledgling public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also founded electric carmaker Tesla Inc.
One irregularity confronting the returning crew was a plumbing leak aboard the capsule that put the spacecraft’s toilet out of order, requiring the astronauts to use spacesuit undergarments if nature called during the flight home, according to Nasa.