SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth with first nighttime splashdown since 1968

SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth with first nighttime splashdown since 1968

SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot in 1968. 

The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m., ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company.

It was an express trip home, lasting just 6 1/2 hours.

NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, headed home in the same Dragon capsule that delivered them to the space station last November. 

In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)

In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands into the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)

“Thanks for your hospitality,” Hopkins radioed as the capsule undocked 260 miles (420 kilometers) above Mali.

Despite the early splashdown hour, the Coast Guard deployed extra patrols — and spotlights — to keep any night-owl sightseers away. The capsule of the first SpaceX crew was surrounded by pleasure boaters last summer, posing a safety risk.

A crew member steps out of the capsule after it parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m. returning from the International Space Station. 

A crew member steps out of the capsule after it parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m. returning from the International Space Station.  (NASA)

SPACEX LAUNCHES NASA CREW FOR MISSION TO ISS ON REUSED ROCKET AFTER DELAY

This image from video provided by NASA shows the SpaceX capsule as it departs the International Space Station, Saturday, May 1, 2021. A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts departed the International Space Station late Saturday, aiming for a rare nighttime splashdown to end the company’s second crew flight. (NASA via AP)

This image from video provided by NASA shows the SpaceX capsule as it departs the International Space Station, Saturday, May 1, 2021. A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts departed the International Space Station late Saturday, aiming for a rare nighttime splashdown to end the company’s second crew flight. (NASA via AP)

Hopkins, the spacecraft commander, rocketed into orbit with his crew on Nov. 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Their replacements arrived a week ago aboard their own Dragon capsule — the same one that launched SpaceX’s first crew last spring.

The four should have been back earlier, but high offshore wind kept them at the space station a few extra days. SpaceX and NASA determined the best weather would be before dawn.

The delays allowed Glover to celebrate his 45th birthday in space Friday.

“Gratitude, wonder, connection. I’m full of and motivated by these feelings on my birthday, as my first mission to space comes to an end,” Glover tweeted.

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Saturday night’s undocking left seven astronauts at the space station: three Americans, two Russians, one Japanese and one French.