A crew of four astronauts and their capsule safely blazed through 3,500-degree temperatures generated by atmospheric friction Friday afternoon, bringing an end to their six-month science mission on the International Space Station.
After the fiery re-entry, NASA’s Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins, and the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti splashed down off the Jacksonville coast at 4:50 p.m. EDT. Their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, named “Freedom,” departed the ISS nearly five hours earlier.
“Thank you for an incredible ride up to orbit and an incredible ride home,” Lindgren said after mission control confirmed the capsule was “stable-1,” or in the correct upright position. “Glad to be back.”
After splashdown, recovery forces approached the 17,000-pound capsule in an area cordoned off by the Coast Guard and confirmed no toxic propellants were leaking from the Draco thrusters. A recovery ship then hoisted Dragon onto its rear deck, where Crew-4’s astronauts egressed and stood in full gravity for the first time since launch from Kennedy Space Center on April 27.
After quick medical checkouts on the recovery ship, the crew was to be transported back to the mainland by helicopter. From there, NASA crews are transported back to Houston, Texas, while European astronauts – in this case, Cristoforetti – fly directly back to Europe.
The Jacksonville return zone was selected out of a total of seven around Florida due to its favorable weather. NASA and SpaceX’s options typically include waters off Cape Canaveral, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Panama City, Pensacola, Tampa, and Tallahassee.
The return completes a nearly six-month tour on the ISS, where Crew-4 spent thousands of hours completing science experiments, maintaining the station, and exercising to ward off the effects of microgravity. It marked SpaceX’s fifth crewed flight under contract from NASA to take astronauts to and from the ISS.
Including private crewed missions to orbit and the ISS, SpaceX has now flown humans eight times.
Crew-4’s departure makes room on the ISS for Crew-5, which launched from KSC on Oct. 5 for a six-month tour. Assigned are NASA’s Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and Russia’s Anna Kikina.
NASA’s next SpaceX-selected mission, Crew-6, is expected to launch sometime in the first quarter of next year.
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly.
Contributing: The Associated P