Nasa-SpaceX crew splashes down after return voyage from International Space Station

LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Four astronauts strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast on Monday (Nov 8), capping a six-month National Aeronautics and Space Administration science mission aboard the International Space Station and a day-long flight home.

The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavour, parachuted into the sea as planned at about 10.30pm EST on Monday (11.30am Singapore time on Tuesday), following a fiery re-entry descent through earth's atmosphere carried live by a Nasa webcast.

Live thermal video imaging captured a glimpse of the capsule streaking like a meteor through the night sky over the gulf minutes before splashdown.

Applause was heard from the flight control centre as the four main parachutes inflated above the capsule as it drifted down towards the gulf surface, slowing its speed to about 24kmh before dropping gently into the calm sea.

"Endeavour, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet earth," a voice from the SpaceX flight control centre in suburban Los Angeles was heard telling the crew as a safe splashdown was confirmed.

"It's great to be back," one of the astronauts radioed in reply.

Operating autonomously, the spacecraft began its eight-hour return voyage earlier in the day with a 90-minute fly-around of the space station as the crew snapped a series of survey photographs of the orbiting outpost, circling the globe some 400km high.

The Crew Dragon then proceeded through a series of manoeuvres over the course of the day to bring it closer to earth and line up the capsule for its final night-time descent.

Propelled by one last ignition of its rocket thrusters for a "de-orbit burn", the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at about 27,359kmh for a free-fall towards the ocean below, during which crew communications were lost for several minutes.

Frictional heat generated as the capsule plunged through the atmosphere typically sends temperatures surrounding the outside of the vehicle soaring to 1,927 deg C.

The re-entry friction also slows the capsule's descent before parachutes are deployed.

The astronauts' flight suits are designed to keep them cool if the cabin warms up, while a heat shield protects the capsule from incinerating.

Recovery vessels were shown headed towards the waterproof Crew Dragon as it bobbed upright in the water.

The astronauts and their capsule were expected to be hoisted out of the sea within about an hour, Nasa said.

The crew consists of two Nasa astronauts - mission commander Shane Kimbrough, 54, and pilot Megan McArthur, 50 - along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and fellow mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, 43, a French engineer from the European Space Agency.

They were lofted to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off on April 23 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

They are the third crew launched into orbit under Nasa's fledgling public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also founded electric car maker Tesla.

The returning team was designated "Crew 2" because it marks the second operational space station team that Nasa has launched aboard a SpaceX capsule since resuming human spaceflights from American soil last year, after a nine-year hiatus at the end of the US space shuttle programme in 2011.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour with its parachutes deployed just before splashing down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, on Nov 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP / SPACEX
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft after landing in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, on Nov 8, 2021. PHOTO: NASA/AUBREY GEMIGNANI

The replacement team, "Crew 3", was originally slated to fly to the space station at the end of October, but that launch has been delayed by weather problems and an unspecified medical issue involving one of the four crew members.

One irregularity confronting the returning Crew 2 is a plumbing leak aboard the capsule that has put the spacecraft's toilet out of order, meaning the astronauts will have to relieve themselves in their spacesuit undergarments if nature calls during the flight home, according to Nasa.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.