SpaceX flies astronauts home, capping first regular Nasa mission

(From left) Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins and Soichi Noguchi on the International Space Station. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Elon Musk's SpaceX returned four astronauts to Earth to conclude its first regular crew mission to the International Space Station, cementing its status as Nasa's only commercial partner so far capable of carrying people.

The company's Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida shortly before 3am Sunday (3pm Singapore time), according to video streamed by Nasa/SpaceX.

A SpaceX vessel was to collect the capsule carrying astronauts Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Soichi Noguchi and return them to shore for medical checks.

The crew's return after more than five months capped Space Exploration Technologies' debut regular mission under a Nasa contract to ferry people to the space station - and marked the first time four astronauts visited the orbiting lab on a US vehicle since the space shuttle programme ended in 2011.

SpaceX carried two astronauts to the station and back last year in a test mission, racing ahead of Nasa's other commercial partner, Boeing.

For the latest trip home from the space station, the crew undocked the Dragon, which they dubbed "Resilience," around 9pm, a time that was selected based on the weather forecast on Earth.

During the flight after reentering the Earth's atmosphere the capsule faced temperatures of as high as 3,500 deg F (1,927 deg C).

The Coast Guard imposed a two-mile safety zone around the splashdown area. In the return of the August test flight, a flotilla of weekend boaters sailed up to gawk at the spacecraft.

Nasa said the close proximity was a safety hazard because of the toxic propellants carried by the capsule.

The trip to space was a first for Glover, who also became the first Black astronaut assigned to a full rotation on the space station. The so-called Crew-1 mission launched Nov 15 with the very same recycled Falcon 9 rocket that lifted Nasa's current four-astronaut contingent on April 23.

The Crew-2 mission used a different Dragon capsule, dubbed "Endeavour," that is currently docked at the ISS.

Crew-1 successful return bolsters SpaceX's burgeoning role in Nasa's human spaceflight activities.

Nasa also selected SpaceX in April to devise a human lunar-landing system with the company's futuristic Starship. That award is under protest by other bidders.

Boeing is developing a second spacecraft for Nasa's commercial crew programme, the CST-100 Starliner, which has been beset by delays and a botched test flight last year with no astronauts aboard. Boeing hopes to fly a second Starliner test without people as soon as August.

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