(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — Four astronauts returned to Earth on Monday, riding home with SpaceX to end a 200-day space station mission that began last spring.
After streaking through the sky at night like a meteorite, their capsule parachuted into Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola (Florida). Lights were quickly used to illuminate the boats that arrived at rescue.
“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to Planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California.
Their homecoming — coming just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station — paved the way for SpaceX’s launch of their four replacements as early as Wednesday night.
The newcomers were scheduled to launch first, but NASA switched the order because of bad weather and an astronaut’s undisclosed medical condition. NASA will no longer be welcoming the astronauts, except for the two Russians and the American who are still at the station.
Before Monday afternoon’s undocking, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who’s waiting to launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted it was a shame the two crews wouldn’t overlap at the space station but “we trust you’ll leave everything nice and tidy.” His will be SpaceX’s fourth crew flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and France’s Thomas Pesquet should have been back Monday morning, but high wind in the recovery zone delayed their return.
“One more night with this magical view. It’s hard to complain. I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted Sunday alongside a brief video showing the space station illuminated against the blackness of space and the twinkling city lights on the nighttime side of Earth.
From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei — midway through a one-year flight — bid farewell to each of his departing friends, telling McArthur “I’ll miss hearing your laughter in adjacent modules.”
The four of them took photos and went around the station before leaving their neighborhood. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA’s shuttles used to do it all the time before their retirement a decade ago. It was only three years since the Russian last capsule flew-around.
It wasn’t the most comfortable ride back. Because the capsule’s toilet was not working, the astronauts had to travel home with only diapers. The astronauts regarded it as one last challenge and brushed it off in late September.
Shortly after April’s liftoff, the first problem arose. Mission Control had warned that a piece space junk threatened to hit their capsule. The false alarm turned out not to have been a problem. It was a false alarm that the Russian thrusters accidentally ignited, sending the station into spin in July. They took cover in their SpaceX capsule and were ready for an emergency departure.
Among the upbeat milestones: four spacewalks to enhance the station’s solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers.
Next crew will spend six months there welcoming back-toback tourist groups. In December, a Japanese businessman and his assistant will be given a lift by the Russian Space Agency. Three other businessmen arrived via SpaceX in February. SpaceX’s first privately chartered flight, in September, bypassed the space station.
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