Two NASA astronauts, a Japanese space veteran and a Russian cosmonaut, said goodbye to their seven space station crewmates and returned to Earth Saturday night, after a fiery plunge back through the lower atmosphere in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa, Florida.
Blasting through space at 84 football fields per second – 17,100 miles per hour – Commander Nicole Mann and Pilot Josh Casada observed an automatic 11-minute firing of the ship’s braking rockets beginning at 8:11 EST, putting the capsule on course to re-enter the Gulf.
28 minutes later, the SpaceX Crew Dragon reenters the clear atmosphere, its heat shield withstanding temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, as atmospheric friction rapidly decelerates the vehicle in a bright fireball; A meteor-like tail of fire stretched behind it.
The capsule’s main parachutes are deployed and inflated at about 6,500 feet, slowing the capsule to 16 miles per hour for the final three and a half minutes of flight. The splashdown came right on time at 9:02 pm EST.
SpaceX mission control communicator Michael Blasko radioed “Dragon Endurance, from SpaceX, welcome home.
“Thank you, SpaceX, it’s been a ride!” Mann, an experienced F-18 fighter pilot replied. “We’re happy to be home, looking forward to next time.”
A nearby SpaceX crew quickly assembled to “safeguard” the spacecraft and lift it aboard a company recovery vessel. Once on deck, the hatch was opened and Mann, Casada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, and astronaut Anna Kikina were helped one by one and placed on stretchers to facilitate their reorientation in gravity.
After initial medical examinations, they will be flown ashore by helicopter and then assisted aboard a NASA jet to return to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a debriefing and reunion with family and friends.
“Before we started, our flight director referred to Expedition 68 as ‘Iron Man,'” Casada said in departure remarks last week. “And that was before the universe started throwing curveballs our way. And then it got really crazy.”
“While we were here, we did six spacewalks, we installed two solar arrays, we built infrastructure for two more solar arrays and we fixed a broken old one,” continued Casada. “We had five cargo vehicles (visits) with all the science and hardware that (supported) hundreds of experiments and thousands of researchers around the planet.”
He added, “We just want to thank you, and we hope we’ve made you proud. If we don’t, don’t tell us until we get home!”
Those remaining in orbit were Crew-6 commander Stephen Bowen, pilot Woody Hoberg, astronaut Andrey Fedyaev and UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi, Soyuz MS-22/23 crewmen Sergei Prokopiev, Dmitri Petlin, and NASA astronaut Frank Rubin.
Bowen and his Crew-6 colleaguesOn March 3 Mann, Kasada, Wakata and Kikina replaced. Prokopiev and his two Soyuz crewmates, which launched last September, spent a full year on the station. which disables their ferry ship, launching a replacement spacecraft.
As Mann and his crewmates pulled back from the station after undocking early Saturday, Rubio commented on a “great sunset departure. You look great. Great job here, we’re going to miss you. Godspeed.”
Moments later, Mann, a Marine Corps colonel, thanked NASA and SpaceX for their support, saying, “I can’t tell you what an incredible team it is to be a part of.”
“And to the crew on the International Space Station, you’ve got it, make us proud, we’ll follow you on your mission,” Mann added. “And to our friends and family, thank you for following along and being a part of our mission. It’s been a privilege to add to the legacy.”
He closed with the Marine Corps motto: “Semper Fidelis.”
Crew-5 mission duration on Splashdown: 157 days 10 hours, 2,512 orbits and covering 66.6 million miles since launch on October 5, 2022.
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