The four Crew-1 astronauts splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico right on schedule early Sunday, returning to Earth after a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

The astronauts — three Americans and one from Japan — had undocked from the station at 8:35 p.m. Saturday, flew through the atmosphere and then touched down in the Gulf of Mexico under four massive parachutes at about 2:57 a.m. ET Sunday.

The return mission appeared to go flawlessly from start to finish, with the autonomous SpaceX Dragon spacecraft firing its engines on schedule to slow it down enough to pull it out of orbit and into the atmosphere. Within an hour of splashdown, the capsule had been lifted aboard a recovery ship and the four astronauts had disembarked, to be flown first to Florida aboard a helicopter and then aboard a NASA plane to Houston.

“It really could not have been a more flawless journey home for Crew Dragon Resilience,” said NASA public affairs officer Leah Cheshier.

Once the crew splashed down, SpaceX mission control had some fun with the astronauts: “We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX. For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

What you need to know:

  • The Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico at about 2:57 a.m. ET Sunday off the coast of Panama City, Fla.
  • It’s the first time a U.S. space capsule has landed under the cover of darkness since 1968. It was only the second time that a spacecraft has splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Weather conditions were excellent, with little wind and glass-like seas. The descent was captured by cameras on board the recovery ship and aboard a nearby aircraft.
  • The astronauts aboard the capsule, Americans Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi of Japan, set the record for the most days in space by a crew launched on a United States spacecraft, surpassing the milestone of 84 days that was set by the Skylab 4 crew in 1974.

Astronauts leave capsule less than an hour after splashdown

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Less than an hour after splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, the astronauts disembarked the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

First out was NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, the commander of the mission. He waved his arms, like doing a little dance once he crawled out of the capsule. Next out were NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, who were followed by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

The crews will head back to Houston to be reunited with their families.

Before they popped out, Hopkins said he was grateful for the SpaceX team. “I want to say thank you for this amazing vehicle, Resilience,” he said. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. Finally, I would just like to say, quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations. It’s great to be back.”

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft hoisted onto the deck of the recovery ship

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Recovery crews moved very quickly and were able to hoist the SpaceX Crew Dragon on to the deck of the recovery ship in less than 30 minutes after splashdown.

Safety personnel will check to make sure there are no fuel leaks, and if the conditions are safe, the astronauts will exit the vehicle to be checked out by doctors on board the ship.

Boeing looking to fly its next test flight, without astronauts onboard, in August or September

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SpaceX has launched its third mission with astronauts to the International Space Station. It is charging ahead with more to come, and getting a lot of the attention, in part because Elon Musk’s company also won the contract to build NASA’s lunar lander.

But Boeing is also working to fly crews to the space station — although it has had problems with its Starliner spacecraft.

Boeing flew a test mission with astronauts in December 2019. But the spacecraft had software problems that forced controllers on the ground to bring it down prematurely. It never docked with the station — one of the main objectives of the test flight. And the company decided to do the test flight over again.

Solving the software problems took a long time, however, and the company has still not returned to the skies. It has recently said that the spacecraft will be ready to fly as early as this month but that scheduling on the space station and the availability of the rocket that propels it from Earth will mean its flight can’t take place until August or September.

Still, it said it would continue to “evaluate options if an earlier launch opportunity becomes available.”

If that flight is successful, Boeing would look to flying its first test flight with NASA astronauts onboard.

Crew-1 splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico

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The four Crew-1 astronauts have splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, returning to Earth after a six-month stay on the International Space Station. The astronauts — three Americans and one from Japan — undocked from the station at 8:35 p.m. Saturday evening, flew through the atmosphere and then touched down in the Gulf of Mexico under four massive parachutes at 2:57 a.m. ET Sunday.

The return mission appeared to go flawlessly from start to finish, as the autonomous SpaceX Dragon spacecraft fired it engines to slow down enough to pull it out of orbit an into the atmosphere.

“It really could not have been a more flawless journey home for Crew Dragon Resilience,” said NASA public affairs officer Leah Cheshier.

Once the crew splashed down, SpaceX mission control had some fun with the astronauts: “We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX. For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

Speed boats on site are now speeding to the capsule to secure it and eventually hoist it on to the deck of the recovery ship, where doctors will tend to the crew and make sure they are okay. They would then fly by helicopter to shore where a plane is waiting to take them home to Houston.

SpaceX Dragon parachutes deployed

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The parachutes of the SpaceX Crew Dragon have deployed, guiding the spacecraft to the Gulf of Mexico. First drogue parachutes unfurled, stabilizing the spacecraft before the main chutes deployed, opening slowly to slow the vehicle methodically.

The parachutes are one of the last major milestones to the landing, which so far has appeared to go flawlessly.

Crew Dragon has entered the atmosphere

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The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has entered the atmosphere on the final leg of its ride home. The spacecraft is expected to lose communication with the ground as the heat builds up around the capsule. That blackout should last about seven minutes.

“We will see you on the other side,” ground controllers told the astronauts.

Busy months ahead for SpaceX

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SpaceX has been on a tear recently, launching a crew of astronauts to the International Space Station last week, then returning another one to Earth Sunday morning. And the pace isn’t slowing down.

In September, SpaceX plans to launch the first all-civilian crew in a mission that would orbit Earth for a few days before coming back. Called Inspiration4, the mission is being funded by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and is raising money for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

That mission would fly on the same spacecraft, dubbed Resilience, that the Crew-1 astronauts are flying home now.

In a briefing with reporters while on the space station, NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins said he thought the mission is “a good thing for human spaceflight.” By allowing the private sector to focus on low Earth orbit, “then NASA can continue to focus on exploration and getting back to the moon and onto Mars through the Artemis program,” he said.

The Crew-1 astronauts have not yet had the chance to speak with the members of the Inspiration4 mission. But he said they “would love to have that opportunity and kind of talk to them about what it’s like inside Resilience going uphill. And we’ll be able to tell them soon what it’s like coming home as well.”

SpaceX is also working toward the next flight of professional astronauts, Crew-3, which is scheduled for late October.

Finally, it’s planning to fly another private astronaut mission as early as January. That flight is being organized by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that is also developing a commercial space station. The flight is led by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who would be joined by three wealthy individuals, each of whom are spending $55 million for the trip.

The crew plans to spend about a week on the space station before coming home.

Deorbit burn complete

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SpaceX Dragon has shut off its Draco engines for the last time, after slowing the spacecraft down enough to enter the atmosphere on its return home. The temperatures outside the spacecraft are climbing and will eventually reach about 3,500 degrees. Plasma will build outside the spacecraft, interfering with communications with the ground, and a blackout period is anticipated.

The next major milestone will be the deployment of the drogue parachutes, which would slow and stabilize the spacecraft, then the four main chutes will deploy, bringing the the spacecraft to a landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deorbit burn has begun

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SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has begun its deorbit burn, firing its engines to slow the spacecraft down and guide it back into the atmosphere. The engines are expected to fire for about 16 minutes in one of the most crucial moments of the return.

The burn will put the spacecraft in a position to precisely land in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of Panama City. Meanwhile, the recovery ship has moved into place, getting ready to pick up the capsule.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft jettisons trunk

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The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft has jettisoned its trunk, the module outfitted with solar panels that provides power to the capsule. With the trunk gone, the spacecraft’s heat shield is now exposed and prepared to help withstand the extreme temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, as the capsule plunges through the thickening atmosphere.

Meet the returning crew

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The commander of the Crew-1 astronauts is Michael Hopkins, a colonel in the U.S. Space Force, who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009. He previously flew to space on the Russia Soyuz spacecraft in 2013 in a mission that completed 2,656 orbits of Earth and traveled more than 70 million miles. He was the captain of the University of Illinois football team, and commissioned in the Air Force in 1992.

In December, he became the first-ever U.S. Space Force officer assigned as an astronaut when he transferred from the Air Force while aboard the International Space Station.

Shannon Walker began her career at NASA in 1987 as a robotics flight controller for the space shuttle program. She was selected for the astronaut corps in 2004. She flew to the space station on the Russian Soyuz in 2010. She is married to fellow NASA astronaut Andy Thomas.

Victor Glover is the rookie of the group. He had never flown to space before this mission. A Navy commander, he is a test pilot who has flown the F/A 18 Hornet. He has four daughters and became the first African American astronaut ever to live aboard the space station.

Soichi Noguchi is a veteran Japanese astronaut who has flown on the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz in addition to Crew Dragon. While onboard the station this time, he took a lot of stunning photographs of Earth that he posted to his Twitter account, including one of the Pyramids.

Getting used to gravity again

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For the past six months, the Crew-1 astronauts have been living in the weightless environment of space, floating around the space station and enjoying one of the pure joys of being in space.

But coming home and adjusting to gravity can be rough. Returning astronauts sometimes have a difficult time staying upright after landing, while their bodies, and minds, get used to the pull of gravity again.

In an interview with The Washington Post a couple of years ago, former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus said it was one of the most difficult transitions.

“Gravity sucks. It’s horrible,” she said. “We adapt to this whole new environment . . . and then we come back and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What the heck is this? I can’t believe we live in this all the time.’ I mean it’s just horrid. It’s this huge force that’s just pressing down on us every day.”

Mike Massimino, another former NASA astronaut, recalled how in space he would just let go of items instead of putting them down because they’d just float there next to him. On Earth, of course, they’d just come crashing down. And many astronauts, home just a day or two from space, have let coffee cups go, thinking they would just remain floating next to them, only to have them fall and shatter on the ground.

Massimino had another experience.

“It was probably my third day back, and I was taking groceries out of the minivan, and I wasn’t sure where to put them,” he said. “I had all these plastic bags from Kroger’s and I had to get them out of the car and into the house. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just float this one here?’ And I just dropped it, thinking it was going to float.”

The previous time-in-space record lasted nearly five decades. The new one may not last that long.

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In February, the Crew-1 astronauts passed the record for the most days in space by a crew launched on a U.S. spacecraft, surpassing the milestone of 84 days that was set by the Skylab 4 crew in 1974.

Since then, they have doubled that record, staying onboard the International Space Station for 168 days.

The record set by the Skylab crew “is really pretty significant when you think about how long it stood,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins recently told reporters in a briefing from the space station. “I don’t anticipate that our record is going to last that long. And that’s a good thing.”

Weather looking good for splashdown

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High winds in the splashdown area forced NASA and SpaceX to postpone the splashdown of the Dragon capsule last week. But the weather is expected to be good, even “ideal” Sunday.

High winds that kick up the seas and create big waves can create a dangerous situation, not just for the astronauts in the spacecraft but for the recovery teams as well. But on Sunday, the winds are expected to be very light and the sea as smooth as glass, creating “very benign waves,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said during a broadcast of the return.

The darkness also shouldn’t be a problem, officials said.

“The vehicle is certified to land in day or night,” Stich said. “There’s really not an issue with the vehicle itself and the recovery. We have been practicing recovering the crews in day or night.”

The skies would be generally clear, he said, so “we’ll have quite a bit of moonlight.” And the recovery ships are outfitted with lights as well, he said.