Crew Dragon splashes down to close out 157-day mission

SpaceX’s Dragon Endurance spacecraft descends over the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

Two NASA astronauts, a Japanese space veteran and a Russian cosmonaut bid their seven space station crewmates farewell and returned to Earth Saturday night, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa after a fiery plunge back through the lower atmosphere.

Streaking through space at 84 football fields per second — 17,100 mph — commander Nicole Mann and pilot Josh Cassada monitored an automated 11-minute firing of the ship’s braking rockets starting at 8:11 p.m. EST, putting the capsule on course for re-entry over the Gulf.

Twenty-eight minutes later, the Crew Dragon fell back into the discernible atmosphere, its heat shield enduring temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as the ship rapidly slowed in a brilliant fireball of atmospheric friction.

The capsule’s main parachutes unfurled and inflated at an altitude of about 6,500 feet, slowing the capsule to a sedate 16 miles per hour for the final three-and-a-half minutes of flight. Splashdown came right on time at 9:02 p.m.

“Dragon Endurance, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home,” radioed SpaceX mission control communicator Michael Blascoe.

“Thank you, SpaceX, that was one heck of a ride!” replied Mann, a veteran F/A-18 fighter pilot. “We’re happy to be home, looking forward to next time.”

SpaceX crews stationed nearby quickly converged on the spacecraft to “safe” it and haul it aboard a company recovery ship. Once on deck, the hatch was opened and Mann, Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina were helped out one at a time and placed on stretchers to ease their readjustment to gravity.

After initial medical checks, they’ll be flown to shore by helicopter and then helped aboard a NASA jet for a flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for debriefing and reunions with family and friends.

“Before we started, our flight director referred to Expedition 68 as the ‘Iron Man,'” Cassada said in departure remarks last week. “And that was before the universe started throwing curveballs our way, and then it got really crazy.

“While we were up here, we did six spacewalks, we installed two solar arrays, we built the infrastructure for two more solar arrays and we fixed a broken old one. We had five cargo vehicles (visit) along with all the science and hardware that (supports) hundreds of experiments and thousands of researchers around the planet.”

He added, “we just want to say thank you, and we hope that we made you proud. If we didn’t, don’t tell us until we get home!”

The Crew-6 astronauts inside the Dragon spacecraft after splashdown Saturday night. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

Left behind in orbit were Crew-6 commander Stephen Bowen, pilot Woody Hoburg, cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi, along with Soyuz MS-22/23 crewmen Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio.

Bowen and his Crew-6 colleagues arrived at the lab March 3 to replace Mann, Cassada, Wakata and Kikina. Prokopyev and his two Soyuz crewmates, launched last September, are spending a full year aboard the station in the wake of a micrometeoroid impact that disabled their ferry ship, triggering launch of a replacement spacecraft.

As Mann and her crewmates backed away from the station after undocking early Saturday, Rubio commented on a “magnificent sunset departure. You guys look great. Great job up here, we’re going to miss you. Godspeed.”

A few moments later, Mann, a Marine Corps colonel, thanked NASA and SpaceX for their support, saying “I can’t tell you how great it feels to be part of such an incredible team.”

“And to the crew on board the International Space Station, you’ve got it, make us proud, we’ll be following along on your mission. And to our friends and family, thank you for following along and being part of our mission. It has been a privilege to add to the legacy.” She closed with the Marine Corps motto: “Semper fidelis.”

Crew-5 mission duration at splashdown: 157 days 10 hours, covering 2,512 orbits and 66.6 million miles since launch last October 5.