SpaceX Dragon leaves space station for NASA's 1st nighttime crew splashdown since 1968

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX's first long-duration astronaut mission is coming to an end, with a Crew Dragon capsule undocking from the International Space Station and headed for a splashdown off the coast of Florida early Sunday (May 2). 

Strapped inside the Dragon capsule, called Resilience, are four astronauts who will make the first U.S. night water landing in more than 50 years. The crew, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi, is wrapping up a six-month mission to the station. 

The astronauts cast off from the station at 8:35 p.m. EDT (0035 GMT) on Saturday (May 1). Their Dragon spacecraft then conducted a series of short burns to back away from the space station. 

"Station, thanks for your hospitality, sorry we stayed a little bit longer, see you back on Earth," Hopkins, commander of Resilience, radioed the station's crew after undocking. (Saturday's Dragon departure was delayed several days due to bad weather at its splashdown site.)

Live updates: SpaceX's Crew-1 astronaut mission to the space station

SpaceX's Crew-1 Dragon capsule Resilience is seen in camera view from the International Space Station after undocking from the orbital lab on May 1, 2021 to return four astronauts back to Earth. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The astronaut quartet spent six months in space as part of SpaceX's first long-duration crewed flight, called Crew-1, which launched last November atop a Falcon 9 rocket. That flight followed on the heels of a successful test flight of a Dragon spacecraft that carried two NASA astronauts to the space station last May. That Dragon, called Endeavor, recently returned to the station on April 24, with the four Crew-2 astronauts: NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Ahkihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet. 

Their arrival marked the first time that two Crew Dragon vehicles were parked at the space station at the same time. It also made for cramped sleeping arrangements for the crew as NASA only has a certain number of sleeping pods for astronauts. Crew-2's arrival brought the total number of astronauts up to 11, with a few of the astronauts sleeping wherever there was room, and even in the Dragons themselves. With Crew-1's departure, it brings the total number of astronauts back to seven.

In photos: SpaceX's Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station

 Nighttime landing 

On Dec. 27, 1968, Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Their flight was the first to orbit the moon and the first to make a night landing. Now, 53 years later, the Crew-1 crew will do the same, only this time they will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. 

NASA's commercial crew program manager, Steve Stitch, explained that the recovery crews train for both daytime and nighttime landings. "The vehicle is certified to land during the day or night, so there's not an issue with the vehicle itself," he said during the webcast. "And we've been practicing with the recovery crews to land in day or night." 

Stitch explained that NASA chose to schedule the crew missions to fly in April and October to take advantage of ideal weather conditions. "The primary concern for this landing was the weather," he said. "The forecast [for this day] was so good and so benign — that's what's best for the crew." 

To prepare for this and any nighttime landing, the recovery crews (as well as the astronauts) participate in training exercises under varying conditions. They also capitalized on the recent return of a Dragon cargo ship in January to be sure they were ready. 

"The SpaceX crew recovered that vehicle at night, and the Crew and Cargo Dragons are pretty much identical," Stitch said. "So we're well-prepared for this opportunity."

NASA and SpaceX chose to delay the crew's return twice to wait for the ideal weather. That delay paid off as weather officials reported glass-like sea states and very calm winds.

 Recovery efforts 

SpaceX's Crew-1 Dragon Resilience is seen just after undocking from the International Space Station's Harmony module on May 1, 2021 to begin a trip back to Earth with four astronauts aboard. (Image credit: NASA TV)

When Resilience undocked from the International Space Station, both craft were sailing 260 miles above Mali, Africa. The crew's flight home is expected to last approximately 6.5-hours, as the Dragon spacecraft conducts a series of carefully choreographed departure burns before its final deorbit burn. 

Under parachute and the cloak of darkness, Dragon will descend, touching down right on time in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Panama City, Florida. Crews were expecting ideal weather conditions, with calm seas and light winds.  

The capsule is slated to splash down at 2:57 a.m. EDT (0657 GMT), and SpaceX's fast boats will be the first on scene, arriving about 10 minutes later. The Dragon recovery ship, GO Navigator is the main recovery ship for this mission, and used its onboard recovery systems to hoist the Dragon out of the water.  

Once the Dragon is safed, recovery team members will open the hatch and extract the crew. After exiting the Dragon, the crew members will be checked out by medical officials, then board a helicopter to take them back to shore before another plane will fly them back to Houston. 

In addition to the four astronauts, the Dragon is hauling roughly 550-lbs. (250 kilograms) of research and supplies back to Earth. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.