Elon Musk’s success streak continues at his home ground of space exploration as the third long-duration astronaut team launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) safely returned to Earth early on Friday, making, if one will, a splash.
After a fiery re-entry plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida to end months of orbital research ranging from space-grown chillies to robots. The SpaceX flight control centre in suburban Los Angeles resounded with roaring applause.
Dubbed Endurance, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three US NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency (ESA) crewmate from Germany, parachuted into calm seas in darkness at the conclusion of a 23-hour-plus autonomous flight home from the ISS.
Constituting American spaceflight veteran Tom Marshburn, 61, and three first-time astronauts — NASA’s Raja Chari, 44, Kayla Barron, 34, and their ESA colleague Matthias Maurer, 52, the Endurance crew began its stay in orbit on November 11.
In less than an hour, the heat-scorched Crew Dragon was hoisted onto a recovery ship before the capsule’s side hatch was opened, and the four astronauts were helped out one by one for their first breath of fresh air in nearly six months.
The newly returned astronauts were officially designated as NASA’s “Commercial Crew 3,” the third full-fledged, long-duration team of four that SpaceX has flown to the space station under contract for the U.S. space agency.
SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc who recently clinched a deal to buy Twitter, supplies the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules now flying NASA astronauts to orbit from US soil.
The company also controls those flights and handles the splashdown recoveries, while NASA furnishes the crews and launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and manages US space station operations.
California-based SpaceX has launched seven human spaceflights in all over the past two years – five for NASA and two for private ventures – as well as dozens of cargo and satellite payload missions since 2012. Crew 3 returned to Earth with some 550 pounds (250 kg) of cargo, including ample research samples from the ISS.
Although the astronaut’s basic activities comprised routine maintenance while in orbit some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, the astronauts contributed to hundreds of science experiments and technology demonstrations.
Crew 3’s return comes about a week after they welcomed their replacement team, Crew 4, aboard the space station. One of the three Russian cosmonauts also now inhabiting the station, Oleg Artemyev, assumed command of the ISS from Marshburn in a handover before Endurance departed early Thursday.
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