SpaceX makes a big splash, bringing 4 astronauts home

Musk's firm is only commercial partner of Nasa capable of carrying people so far

An astronaut getting help to exit the Dragon capsule yesterday after it returned to Earth, splashing down off the Florida coast. Crew-1's successful return strengthens SpaceX's growing role in Nasa's activities
An astronaut getting help to exit the Dragon capsule yesterday after it returned to Earth, splashing down off the Florida coast. Crew-1's successful return strengthens SpaceX's growing role in Nasa's activities. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Mr 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 the only commercial partner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) capable of carrying people so far.

The Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida shortly before 3am yesterday (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.

"Thanks for your hospitality," Mr Hopkins said earlier as the capsule undocked from the station for its return journey. "We'll see you back on Earth."

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 station.

It marked the first time four astronauts visited the orbiting lab on a United States 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 station, the crew undocked the Dragon at around 9pm on Saturday, a time that was selected based on the weather forecast on Earth.

During the flight after re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, the capsule faced temperatures as high as 1,927 deg C.

The Coast Guard imposed a 3.2km safety zone around the splashdown area. In the return of the August test flight, weekend boaters sailed up to gawk at the spacecraft. Nasa warned of a safety hazard because of the toxic propellants carried by the capsule.

The trip to space was a first for Mr Glover, who also became the first black astronaut assigned to a full rotation on the space station.

The so-called Crew-1 mission launched on 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 that is now docked at the space station.

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

The latter also selected SpaceX last month 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 conduct a second Starliner test without people as soon as August.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2021, with the headline 'SpaceX makes a big splash, bringing 4 astronauts home'. Subscribe