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SpaceX astronauts safely back after rare nighttime splashdown

by The Associated Press | May 3, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot.

The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Fla., just before 3 a.m., ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk's company.

The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule -- named Resilience -- in which they launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in November.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9vc-jPR42U]

"We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX," SpaceX's Mission Control radioed moments after splashdown. "For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you've earned 68 million miles on this voyage."

"We'll take those miles," said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. "Are they transferable?" SpaceX replied that the astronauts would have to check with the company's marketing department.

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the charred capsule -- resembling a giant toasted marshmallow -- had been hoisted onto the recovery ship, with the astronauts exiting soon afterward. NASA and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the operation went. The company's senior adviser, Hans Koenigsmann, said "it looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else."

The 167-day mission was the longest for a crew capsule launching from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by NASA's final Skylab station astronauts in 1974.

Saturday night's undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived about a week ago via SpaceX.

Hopkins and Glover -- along with NASA's Shannon Walker and Victor Glover as well as Japan's Soichi Noguchi -- should have returned to Earth last week, but high offshore winds forced SpaceX to pass up a pair of daytime landing attempts. Managers switched to a rare splashdown in darkness, to take advantage of calm weather.

SpaceX had practiced for a nighttime return and even recovered its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in darkness. Infrared cameras tracked the astronauts' capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere.

Apollo 8 -- NASA's first flight to the moon with astronauts -- ended with a predawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on Dec. 27, 1968. Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan, blown off course in a blizzard.

That was it for nighttime crew splashdowns -- until Sunday.

Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was out in full force to enforce an 11-mile keep-out zone around the bobbing Dragon capsule.

Gallery: SpaceX capsule splashes down at night

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/53splash/]

Once finished with their medical checks on the ship, the astronauts planned to hop on a helicopter for the short flight to shore, then catch a plane straight to Houston for a reunion with their families.

The astronauts' capsule, will head back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment for SpaceX's first private crew mission in September.

In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule floats after landing in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule floats after landing in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after he, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after he, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
NASA astronaut Victor Glover is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after he, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
NASA astronaut Victor Glover is helped out of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after he, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, Commander Mike Hopkins egresses the SpaceX Dragon capsule after being retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
In this image made from NASA TV video, Commander Mike Hopkins egresses the SpaceX Dragon capsule after being retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)
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