SpaceX crew capsule brings astronauts home after nearly 200 days in orbit

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European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, pilot Megan McArthur, commander Shane Kimbrough, and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide inside their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule after splashdown Monday night in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Two NASA astronauts and mission specialists from Japan and France closed out a 199-day flight Monday on a SpaceX crew capsule, departing the International Space Station and riding their Dragon spacecraft through a scorching re-entry and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

NASA commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet descended back to Earth with a nighttime re-entry visible from from Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Numerous skywatchers reported sightings of the capsule’s re-entry, which left a luminescent trail of plasma in its wake as temperatures outside the Dragon spacecraft reached several thousand degrees.

Inside the capsule, the astronauts were seated in reclining seats, with their touch screen displays providing data on the progress of the fully automated descent.

SpaceX mission control reestablished contact with the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft after a seven-minute communications blackout caused by the super-heated plasma sheath around the capsule during entry. Moments later, four main parachutes opened to slow the spacecraft for a gentle splashdown in calm seas near Pensacola, Florida, at 10:33 p.m. EST Monday (0333 GMT Tuesday).

A recovery ship positioned near the splashdown location moved into place near the Crew Dragon capsule. A lifting apparatus raised the Dragon from the sea and placed it on a cradle, where SpaceX opened the capsule’s hatch and helped the astronauts out of the spacecraft.

A plasma trail from then Dragon spacecraft’s re-entry is visible from the mission’s splashdown zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

McArthur, an oceanographer before joining NASA’s astronaut corps, was first out of the spacecraft. The second astronaut to exit the Crew Dragon capsule was Kimbrough, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot who wrapped up his third mission to space.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide was next out of the capsule, followed by Pesquet, who has now logged 395 days in orbit on his two space station expeditions, more time in space than any other ESA astronaut.

The astronauts were placed onto stretchers to ease their acclimation to Earth’s gravity after nearly seven months in space.

After initial medical checks on-board SpaceX’s recovery ship, the four astronauts were expected to ride a helicopter to shore, where airplanes were waiting to take Kimbrough, McArthur, and Hoshide to NASA’s astronaut training base in Houston. Pesquet will fly to the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, for his post-flight debriefing and rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, SpaceX will safe the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft for the trip by sea back to Cape Canaveral, where ground teams will refurbish the reusable capsule for another launch into orbit. The splashdown Monday night concluded the second mission for Crew Dragon Endeavour, and also marked the end of the second operational crew flight to the space station using SpaceX’s fleet of human-rated spaceships.

SpaceX has a $2.6 billion contract with NASA that covered development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, plus six crew rotation flights.

The mission, known as Crew-2, began with launch April 23 on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The capsule automatically docked with the space station the next day.

The Crew-2 astronauts operated experiments and maintained the orbiting research lab. They also performed spacewalks to install a new solar array outside the complex.

NASA commander Shane Kimbrough is helped out of the Crew Dragon spacecraft Monday night. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and SpaceX delayed the Crew Dragon’s undocking and return to Earth from last week in response to the postponed launch of a fresh team of astronauts on the Crew-3 mission. That launch was scheduled for Oct. 31 on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, but high winds in the Dragon’s offshore abort zones in the Atlantic Ocean and a minor medical issue with one of the Crew-3 astronauts forced officials to delay the flight.

NASA mangers decided to swap the order of the crew rotation and bring the Crew-2 astronauts home before launching the Crew-3 mission. The change eliminated a planned handover in orbit between the Crew-2 and Crew-3 astronauts.

The Crew-3 launch is now scheduled for Wednesday at 9:03 p.m. EST (0203 GMT Thursday) from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The Crew-3 mission’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon Endurance space capsule have remained vertical on the launch pad during the delay.

With the Crew-3 mission still awaiting liftoff, NASA and SpaceX gave the green light for the Crew-2 astronauts to depart the space station Monday.

Kimbrough, McArthur, Hoshide, and Pesquet floated into their Crew Dragon spacecraft and put on their custom-fitted SpaceX-made pressure suits for undocking. The capsule separated from the station at 2:05 p.m. EST (1905 GMT) and backed away to a range of more than 660 feet (200 meters).

Then the crew commanded the capsule to begin a “flyaround” of the complex, the first complete 360-degree loop around the space station by a visiting spacecraft since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Russian Soyuz spacecraft have performed partial flyarounds of the space station.

After the crew issued the manual command to start the maneuver, the Crew Dragon’s guidance system autonomously steered the ship from a location above the station, then to positions behind, below, and in front of the complex. Pesquet and Hoshide left their seats to photograph the 460-ton space station from the Dragon spacecraft’s forward window.

The Dragon’s capability to conduct a flyaround was one of the final requirements NASA levied on SpaceX’s crew capsule that was not yet tested in orbit.

The astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft were unable to use the capsule’s toilet system during their eight-hour transit from the space station to the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX discovered a urine leak encountered on the all-civilian, three-day Inspiration4 flight on the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft in September, and inspections of the Endeavour capsule at the space station revealed it also had a leak in the astronaut waste system.

NASA said before the Crew-2 mission returned to Earth that the astronauts would wear absorbent undergarments instead of having access to the toilet. The astronauts on the Crew-3 mission set for launch Wednesday will fly on a brand new SpaceX capsule with a modified toilet system to fix the problem that caused the urine leak.

The departure of the Crew-2 astronauts Monday leaves behind Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei at the space station.

They will be joined by the next four Crew Dragon astronauts Thursday, assuming the Crew-3 mission blasts off as scheduled Wednesday night.

NASA and SpaceX officials plan to convene for a launch readiness review for the Crew-3 mission Tuesday at Kennedy Space Center.

Engineers will review data from the Crew-2 re-entry and splashdown before giving a “go” to proceed with the Crew-3 launch. One area of focus for the review will be the Dragon parachutes.

One of the four main chutes on the Crew Dragon Endeavour took longer to inflate than the three others. Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s space operations mission directorate, said the Crew-2 return “looked spotless,” but added that engineers will assess the parachute performance.

I know folks will be wondering about that one lagging main parachute, and the team will be going off and and looking at how the loading was on the chutes and understanding that behavior,” Lueders said in comments aired on NASA TV after the Crew-2 splashdown. “It is behavior we’ve seen multiple times in other tests, and usually happens when the lines kind of bunch up together until the aero forces kind of open up and spread the chutes.

“The thing that makes me feel a little bit more confident is that the loading and the deceleration of the spacecraft all looked nominal for us, which is good news.”

Lueders said NASA and SpaceX will work through the parachute data during the Crew-3 launch readiness review, which begins at 7 p.m. EST Tuesday (0000 GMT Wednesday). NASA plans a press conference after the launch readiness review at 9:30 p.m. EST (0230 GMT).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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