Descending under parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX's Dragon capsule "Endurance" brought four astronauts back from the International Space Station after an almost six-month stay.
Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, all of NASA, and Matthias Maurer with the European Space Agency (ESA) splashed down Friday (May 6) at 12:43 a.m. EDT (0443 GMT). The landing, off the coast of Tampa, Florida, signaled the end of the Crew-3 mission, 176 days after it began.
"Thanks for letting us take Endurance on its shakedown cruise. Looking forward to watching many more flights of Endurance in the future. That was a great ride," Chari radioed to SpaceX's mission control in Hawthorne, California moments after splashing down.
A fleet of SpaceX vessels were ready to meet the capsule and bring it and the crew aboard the "Shannon," a recovery ship named after Crew-1 astronaut Shannon Walker. From there, after initial medical checks, Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer were to be flown by helicopter back to shore before returning to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The crew's return concluded a succession of three closely scheduled SpaceX flight events, starting with the splashdown of Dragon "Endeavour" with Ax-1, the first private crew to visit the International Space Station, on April 25, followed by the launch of Crew-4 on board Dragon "Freedom" on April 27. The next astronauts to launch or land on a SpaceX vehicle are not scheduled until September.
In photos: SpaceX's Crew-3 astronaut launch for NASA
Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer began their trip back to Earth with the undocking of Endurance from the forward-facing port of the space station's Harmony node at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT) on Thursday. Their departure left behind NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to continue on as the Expedition 67 crew on the space station.
"Almost six months ago, we came up here on Endurance, the maiden voyage of a SpaceX capsule, and it was a great ride and we're looking forward to riding that back to Earth and to seeing friends and family," said Chari during a brief farewell ceremony held on the space station on Wednesday. "It's exciting with Crew-4 here but also a little bit bittersweet knowing that them being here means it's time for us to pass the torch and head back to Earth."
During the same event, Marshburn turned over command of Expedition 67 to Artemyev.
"One hundred years from now, we'll be looking back on the International Space Station as certainly an incredible engineering accomplishment, certainly as a way that countries all around the world have been able to raise their technological base and have been able to produce scientific results to save lives and to improve human life," said Marshburn. "I think the lasting legacy of the space station is very likely to be international cooperation and a place of peace."
"Oleg, you're a very strong and experienced cosmonaut. I know we will be leaving the space station in good hands with you," Marshburn said.
Launched on Nov. 10, 2021, the Crew-3 astronauts helped conduct hundreds of science experiments, including testing new methods for growing crops, studying drought-resistant cotton plants and printing bandages made from skin cells. Maurer also carried out ESA's "Cosmic Kiss" mission, a payload of 35 European experiments ranging from human health to materials science, benefitting life on Earth and the future of space exploration.
"The European Space Agency and the German Space Agency prepared a large part of the science complement that I was able to execute up here," said Maurer before leaving the space station. "It's the end of the six months mission, but I think the space dream lives on."
All four Crew-3 astronauts performed spacewalks to service the space station and prepare it for the addition of upgraded solar arrays.
"It's been a spectacular experience," said Barron. "We've been really lucky to see the whole full range of operational and scientific operations up here, and I can't wait to contribute going forward to all the amazing things NASA is doing alongside our international partners with the return to the moon as part of Artemis."
Barron and Chari are members of NASA's Artemis team, who together with 16 other astronauts were chosen to help prepare for the United States' return to the moon. The experience they gained while aboard the space station is intended to ready them for future flight assignments, including possibly missions on the lunar surface.
Marshburn, 61, was the only veteran astronaut on Crew-3. He previously flew on a space shuttle mission in 2009 and Soyuz flight to the station in 2012 and has now logged a total of 337 days, 10 hours and 43 minutes in space. As Endurance's pilot, Marshburn is among the few people who have flown on three different types of spacecraft.
Chari, 44, Barron, 34, and Maurer, 52, have now each spent 176 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes off of the planet. Maurer was the 600th person to launch to space based on the U.S.-set boundary of 50 miles high (80 km).