After a 177-day spaceflight, four astronauts returned to Earth early Friday morning aboard Crew Dragon Endurance.
NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn, along with European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer undocked from the International Space Station on Thursday before queuing Endurance for a return that brought him back to Earth through the Bay of Campeche, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico.
The sea was good when Endurance splashed at 12:43 a.m. ET Friday (04:43 UTC), with a glassy surface over the ocean. The spacecraft was brought aboard the recovery vessel, named Shannon, and the crew got out less than an hour after landing. From there, they boarded a helicopter and will then fly to Houston for a reunion with family members.
It was Endurance, and the commander, Chari, said he performed admirably during the flight to and from the space station. “Thank you for letting us take Endurance on her shakedown cruise,” Chari said, shortly after landing. “Looking forward to watching many more flights from Endurance in the future. It was a great race.”
Aboard the station, Crew-3 astronauts performed hundreds of scientific experiments, such as testing drought-resistant cotton plants and researching vision loss. They brought some of those experiments back with them, inside the freezers inside the Dragon spacecraft.
Splashdown marked the completion of SpaceX’s fourth crewed spaceflight for NASA – carrying a total of 14 astronauts to and from the International Space Station – as well as two private orbital spaceflights, the Inspiration4 and Axiom-1 missions. Additionally, the Crew-4 mission recently launched on April 27 for NASA, with its four astronauts currently living on the station.
In less than two years since its debut as a human spaceflight vehicle, Crew Dragon has now carried more astronauts to orbit and back, 22, than NASA. Gemini spacecraft, 20. Next comes the Apollo capsule, with 45 astronauts. The three-decade tally of more than 800 Space Shuttle astronauts likely remains out of reach until SpaceX’s much larger Starship vehicle comes online.
The past month has been particularly busy for the private rocket company. SpaceX launched the private Axiom 1 mission on April 8 and landed it on April 25. Just two days later, on April 27, SpaceX launched the Crew-4 mission for NASA. And on Friday morning, his teams saw the Crew-3 flight return safe and sound.
“If you look at all of this work over the last month, you know, I really want to personally thank SpaceX for doing such seamless operations on all of these missions,” said Kathy Lueders, head of human spaceflight operations at the NASA, during a post-landing press conference. “Very quiet launches. Beautiful landings. And I really want to express my thanks to both the ISS and the commercial crew teams who spent long hours troubleshooting and facilitating a ton of in-orbit and ground operations.”
SpaceX also launched three other rockets in the past month: two Starlink satellite missions and a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. Additionally, SpaceX has a Starlink launch scheduled for Friday morning at 5:42 a.m. ET (09:42 UTC), just five hours after Crew-3 landed.
So, is it too much for the company to handle safely? NASA officials say SpaceX has assigned enough people to different teams to handle all the work. NASA’s Steve Stich, who runs the commercial crew program, also said SpaceX stands out from other space companies in the amount of work it automates, especially when it comes to reviewing data from spacecraft. launches and landings.
William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, said the past month has been a “special time” for his company. But he added that different groups of people at SpaceX each focus on different projects and they’ve managed to stay focused. “Our heads haven’t been on a pivot,” he said.
The results seem to confirm this.