By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – The fourth long-duration astronaut team launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) safely returned to Earth on Friday, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida after nearly six months of research aboard the orbital outpost.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule dubbed Freedom, carrying three U.S. NASA astronauts and an Italian crewmate from the European Space Agency, parachuted into the sea at the conclusion of a five-hour autonomous flight home from the ISS.
Splashdown, at about 4:55 p.m. EDT (2055 GMT), was carried live by a joint NASA-SpaceX webcast.
The Freedom crew, which began their stay in orbit on April 27, consisted of Americans Kjell Lindgren, 49, Jessica Watkins, 34, and Bob Hines, 47, as well as Italy’s Samantha Cristoferetti, 45, who was commander of their ISS expedition.
Camera shots from inside the crew compartment showed the four strapped in their seats, garbed in helmeted white-and-black spacesuits.
Splashdown-recovery teams were expected to take at least an hour to reach the capsule bobbing in the water, hoist it onto the deck of a retrieval vessel and let the astronauts out for their first breath of fresh air in more than 24 weeks.
Choppy sea conditions earlier in the week delayed the flight back to Earth by a couple days.
The return from orbit followed a fiery re-entry plunge through Earth’s atmosphere generating frictional heat that sent temperatures outside the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,930 degrees Celsius).
Two sets of parachutes billowed open above the capsule in the final stage of descent, slowing its fall to about 15 miles per hour (24 kph) before the craft hit the water off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.
Applause from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles was heard over the webcast.
During their 170 days aboard the space station, the crew orbited Earth 2,720 times – about once every 90 minutes – to log some 72 million miles (116 million km) in space, according to NASA.
The returning team was designated as “Crew-4,” the fourth full-fledged long-duration group of astronauts launched to ISS by SpaceX since the private rocket company founded by Tesla Inc CEO Elton Musk began flying NASA personnel in May 2020.
Their exit came a week after their replacement team, Crew-5, arrived aboard the station – a Russian cosmonaut, a Japanese astronaut and two NASA crew mates, including the first Native American woman sent to orbit.
Crew-5 is remaining on ISS for now with two other Russians and a third American who shared a Soyuz flight to the ISS in September. One of those cosmonauts, Serge Prokofiev, assumed ISS command from Cristoferetti before Crew-4’s departure.
ISS, spanning the length of a U.S. football field, has been continuously occupied since 2000, operated by a U.S.-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio)