SpaceX has brought home four astronauts with a midnight splash in the Gulf of Mexico, capping the busiest month yet for Elon Musk’s space taxi service. The three US astronauts and one German, who were transported back to Earth in the capsule, were bobbing off the Florida coast near Tampa less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station.
The US space agency Nasa expects to have them back in Houston later on Friday. Nasa’s Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer hugged the seven remaining astronauts on the station before parting ways.
Mr Maurer said: “It’s the end of a six-month mission, but I think the space dream lives on.”
SpaceX brought its US and Italian replacements last week after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen. That equates to two crew launches and two splashdowns in just under a month.
Musk’s company has put 26 people into orbit in less than two years since it started carrying astronauts for Nasa. Eight of those 26 were space tourists. “Welcome home,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed at Splashdown. “Thank you for flying SpaceX.”
“It was a great ride,” replied Mr. Chari, the capsule’s commander. On reintroduction to gravity, he remarked, “Just one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy.”
All four were out of the pod an hour later, waving and thumbs up as they were taken away for medical checks. The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their ex-astronaut escort who stopped by in April and opened Nasa’s side of the station to paying guests after decades of resistance.
On the other hand, they have faced a dangerous surge in space debris after Russia blew up a satellite in a missile test in mid-November. More than 1,500 pieces of shrapnel will spread through Earth’s orbit in the coming years.
While the war in Ukraine has fueled tensions between the US and Russia, astronauts have stood by their Russian crewmates and vice versa. Air traffic controllers in Houston and Moscow also continued to work together as usual, according to NASA officials.
As he relinquished command of the space station earlier this week, Mr Marshburn called it “a place of peace” and said international cooperation would likely be its lasting legacy. Russian Oleg Artemyev, the new commander, also emphasized the “peace between our countries, our friendship” in orbit and referred to his crew members as brothers and sisters.
The space station is now manned by three Russians, three Americans and one Italian. It was Mr. Marshburn’s third spaceflight and the first for the three who returned with him.
Mr Chari and Ms Barron’s next stop could be to the moon; They are among 18 US astronauts selected for NASA’s Artemis lunar landing program. Two others from this elite group are now on the space station.