After 170 days in space, four astronauts crash landed in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, ending a successful NASA-SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.
After two days of weather delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom returned to Earth off Jacksonville, Florida under clear blue skies and smooth seas. The spacecraft’s descent through Earth’s atmosphere appeared to be nominal, with two drug parachutes deployed on schedule, followed by four clean main parachutes, allowing Dragon to crash down at around 25 km per hour.
“SpaceX, from Freedomthank you for an incredible ride to orbit and an incredible return home,” said NASA spacecraft commander Kjell Lindgren 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 greeted by two SpaceX “speed boats” which secured the grilled-looking vehicle before it was brought aboard the Megane recovery ship, named after Megan McArthur, an astronaut aboard an earlier SpaceX flight.
This mission, Crew-4, was the fourth operational mission performed by SpaceX for NASA. Earlier this month, the Crew-5 mission launched four astronauts to the space station, where they will stay for about six months. Including a first demonstration mission in 2020 and two private spaceflights – Inspiration4 and Axiom-1 – Crew Dragon has now carried 30 people into orbit.
In just over two years, SpaceX has surpassed the total number of astronauts launched into orbit by China, whose manned spaceflight program dates back to 2003; and since Crew Dragon has been operational, it has even surpassed the Russian Soyuz vehicle in terms of the total number of people carried into space during that time.
Over the past two years, Dragon has had a few flaws, including intermittently problematic toilets and a parachute late on a flight, but NASA officials have been extremely pleased with the vehicle’s performance. It safely returned the United States’ manned flight capability, which had been lost since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Had Dragon not been available, NASA would have been in the uncomfortable position of relying on Russia for crew transportation amid the war in Ukraine.
Crew-5 was the last launch of 2022 for SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle, but two missions are scheduled during the first quarter of 2023. In February, the launch of Crew 6 is scheduled, which will 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, starting in March, contractor 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. At his side, the pilot Scott Poteet as well as two mission specialists, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, who work for SpaceX. They will be the first company employees to fly into space on Dragon.