Dragon crew capsule undocks from space station, heads for splashdown Friday

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, pilot Tom Marshburn, commander Raja Chari, and mission specialist Kayla Barron try on their SpaceX pressure suits before departing the International Space Station after a six-month expedition. Credit: NASA

Three NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency mission specialist left the International Space Station early Thursday aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, heading for splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida to wrap up a 176-day expedition in orbit.

SpaceX’s Dragon Endurance spacecraft undocked from the station’s Harmony module at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT), about 15 minutes later than scheduled to allow SpaceX engineers to evaluate a timing issue on the crew’s cockpit displays associated with data received from NASA’s network data relay satellites.

As expected, the timing issue resolved itself when the Dragon spacecraft disconnected power and data umbilicals linked to the space station. Twelve hooks opened to allow the capsule to back away from the complex with a series of thruster firings.

Within a half-hour, the Dragon Endurance spacecraft moved outside the space station’s approach corridor. Mission control confirmed the capsule was on a safe trajectory to begin lining up for re-entry and splashdown early Friday. The Dragon capsule left behind a team of seven astronauts and cosmonauts on the station’s Expedition 67 crew.

“Station, Endurance,” Chari radioed after undocking. “Good luck to Expedition 67. It was great being up there with you guys. We can’t wait to see all the awesome work you guys continue to do on that amazing orbital laboratory up there.”

Chari, pilot Tom Marshburn, astronaut Kayla Barron, and ESA mission specialist Matthias Maurer launched Nov. 10 on the Crew-3 mission, riding a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Dragon Endurance spacecraft docked with the space station about 21-and-a-half hours later.

Chari and his crewmates will have some off-duty time in the Dragon spacecraft until re-entry preparations get underway late Thursday. The astronauts will put on their custom-fitted spacesuits before a deorbit burn at 11:53 p.m. EDT Thursday (0353 GMT Friday).

The braking maneuver will slow the spacecraft’s velocity enough for Earth’s gravity to pull the capsule back into the atmosphere. The craft will deploy four main parachutes before a relatively gentle splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida at 12:43 a.m. EDT (0443 GMT).

With a splashdown just after midnight Friday, the Crew-3 astronauts will have spent more than 176 days in orbit.

Marshburn, a veteran astronaut on his third flight to space, ceremonially handed over command of the International Space Station crew to Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev Wednesday, a few hours before departure.

“It’s been an interesting day for us,” Marshburn said. “We’ve been flying around the station, collecting our last minute photos, our last minute items, and getting ready to come home, so a bit of a bittersweet day for all of us.”

“I think, for all of us, it’s really hard to leave,” Barron said. “We’re really looking forward to getting back to our families and our amazing support network on the ground.”

The Crew-3 astronauts are part of SpaceX’s third operational crew rotation flight to the space station for NASA. The crew was on-board the research outpost as diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, the two most significant partners on the station, frayed in the aftermath of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.

The fallout from the invasion led to the suspension of many cooperative spaceflight projects between Russia and Western countries, including Soyuz launch operations at the European spaceport in French Guiana, and the indefinite delay of the ESA-Russian ExoMars mission that was scheduled for launch later this year.

But work on the space station continued without interruption. The station requires key contributions from the U.S. and Russian segments to maintain operations.

“I think the lasting leagacy of the space station is very likely to be international cooperation and a place of peace,” Marshburn said has he handed over command to Artemyev. “Oleg, you’re a very strong and experienced cosmonaut. I know we’ll be leaving the space station in good hands with you.”

Artemyev arrived at the station in March with two Russian cosmonaut crewmates — Sergey Korsakov and Denis Matveev.

“We had a short period (together) … and now we’re brothers and sisters,” Artemyev told the Crew-3 astronauts. “What’s more important for me, for Sergey and for Denis, is our family, our children, peace between our countries, and our friendship. thank you for your friendship.”

The Crew-3 astronauts were being replaced by the recently-arrived Crew-4 astronauts, who launched last week on SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft. They arrived at the station April 27 for a mission slated to last at least four months.

Chari, Barron, and Maurer are concluding their first space mission.

Marshburn is in the home stretch of his third spaceflight. In a press conference last month, Marshburn said he was looking forward to a hot bath.

“I miss our planet,” he said. “I miss being tucked up under the clouds and feeling the rain that’s coming from above and feeling my toes in the sand, the grass.”

One of the highlights of the mission for Marshburn, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon, was watching his fellow astronauts experience spaceflight for the first time.

“That’s been a hugely fulfilling and wonderful experience, having three crewmates,” he said. “They’ve gone from being rookies to veterans.”

Marshburn added that life aboard the space station was not directly impacted by the strained relations between Russia and Western nations on Earth.

“It’s been a very collegial, very friendly relationship together up here,” Marshburn said. “We really need each other for our survival. It is a dangerous environment, so we just go with our training, we go with recognizing that we are all up here for the same purpose, to explore, and to keep this space station maintained and to keep performing the science in our laboratories.

“So the dynamic hasn’t changed,” Marshburn said in response to a question from Spaceflight Now. “We have about a 40-year history of working with the Russians (in space), and that is all very much in work and play here.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.