After 170 days in space, four astronauts splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, bringing an end to a successful NASA-SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.
Following two days of weather delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom returned to Earth off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, beneath clear blue skies and into mild seas. The spacecraft’s descent through Earth’s atmosphere appeared to be nominal, with two drogue parachutes deploying on schedule, followed by four clean main parachutes, allowing Dragon to splash down at about 25 km per hour.
“SpaceX, from Freedom, thank you for an incredible ride up to orbit and an incredible ride home,” Kjell Lindgren, the NASA commander of the spacecraft, said after landing.
Lindgren led a mission that included NASA astronauts Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Upon landing, the spacecraft was met by two SpaceX “fast boats” which secured the toasty-looking vehicle before it was brought on board the Megan recovery ship, named after Megan McArthur, an astronaut aboard an earlier SpaceX flight.
This mission, Crew-4, was the fourth operational mission flown by SpaceX for NASA. Earlier this month, the Crew-5 mission launched four astronauts to the space station, where they will remain for about six months. Including an initial demonstration mission in 2020, and two private spaceflights—Inspiration4 and Axiom-1—Crew Dragon has now carried 30 people into orbit.
In a little more than two years, SpaceX has surpassed the total number of astronauts launched into orbit by China, whose human spaceflight program dates back to 2003; and in the time Crew Dragon has been operational, it has exceeded even the Russian Soyuz vehicle in terms of the total number of people flown into space during that period.
Over the last two years Dragon had a few flaws, including an intermittently problematic toilet and a lagging parachute on one flight, but NASA officials have been extremely pleased with the vehicle’s performance. It has safely returned the United States’ capability of human spaceflight, which had been lost since the space shuttle’s retirement. Had Dragon not been available, NASA would have been in the uncomfortable position of relying on Russia for crew transport amid the Ukraine war.
Crew-5 was the last launch of 2022 for SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle, but two missions are expected during the first quarter of 2023. In February, the launch of Crew 6 is planned, to be commanded by NASA astronaut Steve Bowen alongside pilot Warren Hoburg. In addition, there will be two mission specialists, Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi.
Then, as early as March, entrepreneur Jared Isaacman will fly his second Dragon free flyer mission, Polaris Dawn, with the goal of performing the world’s first private EVA and conducting research to advance human spaceflight. Alongside him will be pilot Scott Poteet as well as two mission specialists, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, who work for SpaceX. They will be the company’s first employees to fly in space on Dragon.