Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX Crew-1 Dragon returns to Earth after 168 days in space

Crew-1 Dragon splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Crew-1 Dragon splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Four astronauts returned to Earth in their SpaceX Crew-1 Dragon spacecraft after six months aboard the International Space Station, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida in the dark of night.

The Crew-1 Dragon astronauts — NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Soichi Noguchi — splashed down at 2:56 a.m. EDT (06:56 UTC) May 2, 2021, off the coast of Panama City, Florida, after some 168 days in space.

Recovery personnel work to secure the Dragon capsule and begin the processes of hoisting it onto the recovery vessel "Go Navigator." Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Recovery personnel work to secure the Dragon capsule and begin the processes of hoisting it onto the recovery vessel “Go Navigator.” Credit: NASA/SpaceX

This was only the second nighttime splashdown in U.S. human spaceflight history, the first being Apollo 8 in 1968. Crew-1 was also the longest spaceflight by a U.S. crew vehicle, beating the 84-day record set by the final crew to visit Skylab in 1974.

“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX team, we welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” radioed the SpaceX Crew Operations and Resources Engineer, also known as CORE. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

Hopkins, the spacecraft commander radioed that it was good to be back on Earth.

“And we’ll take those miles,” Hopkins joked. “Are they transferable?”

CORE replied: “Dragon, we’ll have to refer you to our marketing department for that policy.”

Before leaving the outpost, the Crew-1 astronauts said goodbye to the seven-person Expedition 65 crew that remained aboard the ISS. Four launched aboard Crew-2 Dragon about a week ago: NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide (the current ISS commander) and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Three launched aboard Soyuz MS-18 in early April: Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

The 11 people aboard the International Space Station between the arrival of Crew-2 Dragon and the departure of Crew-1 Dragon. The Crew-1 astronauts are in the front row. Credit: NASA

The 11 people aboard the International Space Station between the arrival of Crew-2 Dragon and the departure of Crew-1 Dragon. The Crew-1 astronauts are in the front row. Credit: NASA

At 6:26 p.m. EDT (22:26 UTC) May 1, the hatches between Crew-1 Dragon and the ISS were closed. Over the next several hours, the space between the hatches was depressurized and the spacecraft prepared for departure.

Undocking occurred at 8:35 p.m. EDT (00:35 UTC) with springs between Dragon and the docking adapter on the space-facing port of the Harmony module pushing Crew-1 away. Seconds later, the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters increased the rate of the vehicle’s departure.

Departure burn 1 occurred five minutes later, pushing Crew-1 out of the 650-foot (200-meter) radius ISS “keep-out sphere” and eventually the approach ellipsoid. This was followed by departure burn 2 some 53 minutes after undocking.

The final departure burn occurred at 10:14 p.m. EDT (02:14 UTC), which circularized Crew-1 Dragon’s orbit about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) beneath the space station.

It would be several more hours before the next major milestone occurred, which was the detachment of Dragon’s trunk section and the deorbit burn.

Lasting just over 16 minutes, the deorbit burn started at 2:03 a.m. EDT (06:03 UTC), setting the stage for Crew-1 Dragon’s splashdown just off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

Crew-1 Dragon began its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at about 2:05 a.m. EDT (06:05 UTC). Protected by its heat shield, the spacecraft was slowed down to about 350 miles (560 kilometers) per hour.

According to the crew, they experienced about four times the force of Earth’s gravity due to the deceleration.

Crew Dragon Resilience docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

Crew Dragon Resilience docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

A few minutes later a series of parachutes deployed culminating in four main parachutes to slow the vehicle’s descent to about 16 miles (25 kilometers) per hour.

The sea state upon splashdown was calm with swells of only one or two feet. The weather was relatively clear with winds around 3 miles (5 kilometers) per hour and ample moonlight.

Once in the water, SpaceX recovery crews began the process of securing the capsule, which landed upright in the “stable-1” configuration, and bringing it to the recovery ship, Go Navigator.

Within 30 minutes, the capsule was brought onto the deck of Go Navigator and placed on a device called the “Dragon Nest.”

“On behalf of Crew-1 and our families, we just want to say thank you,” said Hopkins, just before the side hatch was opened. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. You all are changing the world.”

The side hatch was opened some 10 minutes after being placed on Go Navigator and over the next 20 minutes or so, recovery teams helped the four astronauts out of the vehicle and onto a stretcher (to ensure they don’t over-exert themselves after six months without gravity) to take them into a room for medical checks.

After initial health checks, the Crew-1 astronauts boarded a helicopter, located on the top of Go Navigator, before being flown to Pensacola, Florida. Once on shore, the four are expected to board a NASA jet to fly back to Houston later today.

This was Hopkins’ second spaceflight. He first spent six months aboard the ISS between September 2013 and March 2014. With the Crew-1 mission, his career time in space now stands at 335 days.

The Crew Dragon Resilience crew participate in a video conference in February 2021 with former NASA astronaut Edward Gibson, who was one of the three Skylab-4 astronauts. From left to right: Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover. Credit: NASA

The Crew Dragon Resilience crew participate in a video conference in February 2021 with former NASA astronaut Edward Gibson, who was one of the three Skylab-4 astronauts. From left to right: Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover. Credit: NASA

Walker was also on her second spaceflight. Her first spaceflight was a roughly 5.5-month stay aboard the ISS in 2010. Her career time in space is now 331 days.

For Hopkins, the Crew-1 mission was his first spaceflight. He was also the first African American long-duration ISS expedition crewmember.

Noguchi completed his third spaceflight. He first flew into space aboard space shuttle Discovery’s STS-114 mission in 2005. His second spaceflight was a six-month stay aboard the ISS between December 2009 and June 2010. His career time in space is 345 days

Crew-1 Dragon, named Resilience, launched to the ISS in November 2020. It was the first operational flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft. A day later, the spacecraft mated with the docking adapter located on the forward port of the Harmony module where it remained for most of the duration of its stay aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Over the course of their mission, the Crew-1 astronauts participated in five spacewalks to upgrade the space station and prepare for the arrival of new solar arrays later this year.

In preparation for the arrival of the Crew-2 Dragon, on April 5 the Crew-1 Dragon and its crew undocked from its initial docking port and relocated to the space-facing port of the Harmony module. This was done to allow Crew-2 to dock with the forward port.

Now that Crew Dragon Resilience is back on Earth, it will be refurbished and prepared for its next flight, the Inspiration4 mission, currently scheduled for September.

Video courtesy of SciNews

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.

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