Watch SpaceX Make the First Nighttime Splash Down Since 1968

Four astronauts are taking the redeye home to Earth.

At 8:35 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, a crew of four — three NASA astronauts and one from Japan’s space agency — pushed off from the International Space Station in a capsule built by SpaceX.

“Thanks for your hospitality, sorry we stayed a little bit longer,” said Michael Hopkins, the Crew Dragon Resilience’s commander, referring to the weather-delayed departure of the flight. “We’ll see you back on Earth.”

The astronauts will circle the planet a number of times over the hours that follow until they splash down early on Sunday morning in the Gulf of Mexico south of Panama City, Fla.

NASA has not conducted a nighttime splash down like this since 1968, when Apollo 8, the first mission to send astronauts around the moon, returned to Earth.

Just before 2 a.m., as it prepares for its return to Earth, the Crew Dragon will jettison what SpaceX calls the “trunk” section of the spacecraft — the cylindrical compartment below the gumpdrop-shaped capsule. The trunk will burn up in the atmosphere.

Five minutes after the trunk is detached, the capsule will fire its thrusters to drop out of orbit.

Once it is low enough in Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes will deploy to gently lower the capsule into the sea.

Spacecraft can safely return to Earth on water or land.

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules all splashed down in the ocean while Soviet capsules all ended their trips on land. Russia’s current Soyuz capsules continue to make ground landings, as do China’s astronaut-carrying Shenzhou capsules.

NASA returned to water landings on Aug. 2, 2020, when the first crew returning to Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule — the same one that carried astronauts to the space station last week — splashed down near Pensacola, Fla.

Returning from the free-fall environment of orbit to the normal forces of gravity on Earth is often disorienting for astronauts. A water landing adds the possibility of seasickness.

SpaceX has rehearsed working at night, and in January it successfully recovered a cargo capsule that splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Tampa Bay.

One advantage of a nighttime landing could be that fewer private boats are likely to be around. That was a problem in August when the earlier SpaceX capsule splashed down. More than a dozen boats — one of them flying a Trump campaign flag — converged on the singed capsule, and a few went in for a closer look.

The episode raised concerns among NASA and SpaceX officials about security and safety procedures. If there had been an emergency, NASA officials said, the private boats might have impeded recovery efforts. They added that there could have been poisonous fumes from the capsule that posed a risk to the boaters.

To avert such an outcome, the Coast Guard this time will set up a 11.5-mile safety zone around splashdown site and chase away any interlopers.

Typically, the risk of space junk hitting a spacecraft going to or from the space station is small. It is generally a pretty short trip — about a day — and a spacecraft like Crew Dragon is pretty small, so it’s not a big target for a wayward piece of debris.

But when another group of astronauts, Crew-2, launched last week in a different Crew Dragon, they had a bit of a scare when mission control at SpaceX headquarters in California told them that there was a piece of debris headed their way. They put their spacesuits back on and got back in their seats just in case the spacecraft was hit, which could cause depressurization of the capsule.

Mission control then provided a reassuring update: Further analysis indicated the closest approach of the space debris was not that close after all. Still, as a precaution, the astronauts waited until they were told that the space junk had passed by.

The next day, a NASA spokesman said the debris had passed by at a distance of 28 miles — not very close at all.

Then, the United States Space Command, which tracks orbiting debris, made a more perplexing update: The piece of debris that supposedly passed by the Crew Dragon never existed at all. A Space Command spokeswoman said a review was underway to determine what caused the spurious warning.

Other astronauts were also savoring their final moments in orbit with images posted on Twitter.

If the landing is similar to the return last August, SpaceX personnel will go to the capsule, check that it is intact and not leaking any toxic propellant and recover the parachutes.

A larger recovery ship will pull the capsule out of the water. The hatch is then opened for the four astronauts to get out.

After medical checks, the astronauts will head to shore. From there, they will fly to Houston. The capsule will be taken to Cape Canaveral, where it will be refurbished for another flight to space.

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