The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying four astronauts returned safely to Earth today. They swam in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Pensacola. Their return to Earth marks the end of a six-month-long stay at the International Space Station. It also opens the door for a fourth crew to launch to the ISS next week.
Two NASA astronauts, Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hishide (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) are part of the crew. Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut from the European Space Agency, is also part of the crew. On April 23, the crew launched from SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to reach the space station. This mission is called Crew-2.
SpaceX's third attempt to bring people back from the space station marks their third flight.
SpaceX's flight controller said, "On behalf SpaceX, welcome back to planet Earth." Crew Dragon will be lifted out of the water by SpaceX personnel aboard a recovery ship.
SpaceX's third launch of people to the International Space Station was their flight. They then safely returned home. These trips are part SpaceX's contract to NASA through its Commercial Crew Program. This program assigns private companies the responsibility of ferrying NASA's astronauts as well as international partners to the ISS. SpaceX's maiden crew of two was launched to the station by the company in May 2020 as part of a test flight that tested the safety of its Crew Dragon capsule. It was designed to launch on the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX's Crew-1 mission, launched in November 2020 and sending a crew of four astronauts to the ISS for a six month rotation, followed that flight.
Crew-2 is now on the ground. SpaceX will soon pivot to Crew-3, its next crewed rocket. A fourth crew, including NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and German astronaut Matthias Maurer, will launch in a Crew Dragon capsule from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral. The launch is scheduled for Wednesday, November 10, at 9:03 PM ET. They will replace the Crew-2 astronauts, who have just left, and perform another six-month rotation in orbit.
Crew-3 was originally scheduled to launch on October 31st before Crew-2. The crew would be able to greet the new crew, introduce them briefly, and then hand over the duties before they headed home. Crew-3 was delayed a number of times. Launch was delayed by bad weather at one launch abort location. NASA had to postpone the launch because of a minor medical problem that one crew member experienced. NASA did not disclose the nature of the problem, but stated that it was not related with COVID-19.
Crew-2 astronauts have returned to Earth after these setbacks. Crew-3 will arrive at the ISS shortly after Crew-2. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule can last for up to 210 days on orbit. Crew-2's limit was reached November 19, but NASA decided to bring back Crew-2 in order to avoid bad winter weather.
Crew-2 astronauts will be back on Earth before Crew-3 arrives
To ease the transition of Crew-3 astronauts, however, there is still a NASA astronaut aboard the ISS. Mark Vande Hei, who was launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the station in April, will not return home until March 2022. This marks a nearly one-year-long stay in orbit. Joel Montalbano (manager of NASA's International Space Station) stated that his presence aboard "definitely helped us" and made it easier for me to make the decision to land before launch.
Crew-2 astronauts disembarked from the space station today at 2:05 PM ET. One of their touch screens failed to work properly when they first entered the vehicle. However, the problem didn't seem too serious and the crew continued on their flight. They spent a few hours flying around ISS in a circular formation after they left the station. This was an intentional maneuver that allowed the astronauts to take pictures from different vantage points of the ISS. After the fly-around, Crew Dragon began to drift away from the station and it was on its way back to Earth.
Crew-2 astronauts carried out more than 300 experiments aboard the ISS. One of these was the cultivation of Hatch chile peppers from orbit. Crew-2 ate their creations while on board the ISS, along with tacos to spice up their meals. Crew-2 also had to deal with unexpected situations aboard the ISS. One example was when a Russian module docked in space accidentally fired its thrusters, spinning the station around its axis.