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SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”

The crew is due to be flown by helicopter to Pensacola, Fla., where they’ll board a plane that will bring them back to Houston. In addition to the astronauts, Resilience brought about 550 pounds of scientific samples and equipment back to Earth.

The splashdown marked an end to the second crewed space mission to make use of SpaceX’s orbital taxi. The first round trip, conducted last year, was considered a demonstration flight. This one was the first to execute a regular crew rotation.

Yet another Crew Dragon mission delivered a fresh foursome of astronauts to the station a week ago, temporarily boosting the space station’s population to 11. The Dragon crew’s departure leaves seven spacefliers on the orbital outpost — including three Americans and two Russians, plus astronauts from Japan and France.

“Thanks for your hospitality,” Hopkins told his station crewmates over a radio link as Resilience pulled away.

Support teams work around the Crew Dragon Resilience after splashdown. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

It took more than six hours for Resilience to back away and line itself up for the parachute-aided descent from orbit. The crew’s return came several days later than originally planned, due to concerns about weather and waves in the designated splashdown area. NASA opted to go for the unusual nighttime splashdown when the weather forecast turned favorable.

“It just looked like this was the best time to come home,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, told reporters. He noted that recovery crews have trained for nighttime landings.

NASA used nothing but splashdowns for space crews returning from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s, but went to nothing but runway-style touchdowns during the space shuttle era. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft also typically touch down on land (although there was an exception in 1976).

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, like the cargo version of the Dragon, is designed for a water landing — which is why splashdowns are back in style for NASA crews.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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