Two NASA astronauts, a Japanese space veteran and a Russian cosmonaut bid their seven space station crewmates farewell and returned to Earth Saturday night, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa, Florida, after a fiery plunge back through the lower atmosphere.
Streaking through space at 84 football fields per second — 17,100 mph — commander Nicole Mann and pilot Josh Cassada monitored an automated 11-minute firing of the ship’s braking rockets starting at 8:11 p.m. EST, putting the capsule on course for re-entry over the Gulf.
Twenty-eight minutes later, the SpaceX Crew Dragon fell back into the discernible atmosphere, its heat shield enduring temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, as the vehicle rapidly slowed in a brilliant fireball of atmospheric friction; a meteor-like trail of fire extending away behind it.
At about 6,500 feet, the main parachutes opened and inflated. This slowed the capsule down to a slow 16 miles per hour for the last three and a half minutes of the flight. At 9:02 p.m. EST, Splashdown came right on time.
“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home, Dragon Endurance,” said SpaceX mission control communicator Michael Blascoe over the radio.
Mann, a veteran F-18 fighter pilot, said, “Thanks, SpaceX! That was one hell of a ride!” “We’re glad to be home and can’t wait until next time.”
SpaceX workers who were stationed nearby rushed to the spacecraft to “save” it and bring it to a ship that the company uses for recovery. Once on deck, the hatch was opened and Mann, Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina were helped out one at a time and placed on stretchers to ease their readjustment to gravity.
After the initial medical checks, they’ll be taken back to Earth by helicopter and helped onto a NASA jet for the flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they’ll meet up with family and friends and get a full report on what happened.
“Before we started, our flight director referred to Expedition 68 as the ‘Iron Man,'” Cassada said in departure remarks last week. “And that was before the universe started to throw us surprises. Then things got very crazy.”
“While we were up here, we did six spacewalks, put up two solar arrays, built the foundation for two more solar arrays, and fixed an old one that was broken,” Cassada said. “We had five cargo vehicles (visit) along with all the science and hardware that (supports) hundreds of experiments and thousands of researchers around the planet.”
He added, “We just want to say thanks, and we hope you’re proud of us. If we didn’t, don’t tell us till we get home!”
Crew-6 commander Stephen Bowen, pilot Woody Hoburg, cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi, along with Soyuz MS-22/23 crewmen Sergey Prokopyaev, Dmitri Petelin, and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio were left in orbit.
Bowen and the other members of Crew-6 took the place of Mann, Cassada, Wakata, and Kikina on March 3. Prokopyev and his two Soyuz crewmates, who were sent to the station last September, will stay there for a full year. This is because their ferry ship was damaged by a small meteorite, which caused a replacement ship to be sent into space.
As Mann and her crew moved away from the station early Saturday morning after undocking, Rubio said something about a “magnificent sunset departure. You guys look great. You’ve done a great job up here, and we’ll miss you. Godspeed.”
A few minutes later, Mann, a colonel in the Marine Corps, thanked NASA and SpaceX for their help and said, “I can’t tell you how great it feels to be part of such an amazing team.”
“And to the crew on board the International Space Station, you’ve got it, make us proud, we’ll be following your mission,” Mann said. “And thanks to our friends and family for keeping up with us and helping us with our mission. It’s been an honour to add to the history.”
“Semper fidelis,” which is the Marine Corps motto, was her last sentence. Crew-5 mission duration at splashdown: 157 days 10 hours, covering 2,512 orbits and 66.6 million miles since launch on Oct. 5, 2022.