FOUR astronauts splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico early yesterday morning following a six-month stint on the International Space Station, marking the successful privatisation of shuttle missions by Nasa.
he landing on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience was also the first to be carried out by Nasa at night in 53 years.
Nasa astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, splashed down about 3am local time, having undocked from the space station on Saturday evening.
They were taken to Pensacola, Florida, for medical tests. They will receive their first Covid-19 shots before going into quarantine as their immune systems may be weakened.
Resilience touched down without any pleasure boats in sight, much to the relief of Nasa, who feared onlookers could hamper the recovery operation.
The craft set a new record for the longest flight by a capsule carrying a crew, topping the 84 days by an Apollo capsule in 1974. Seven astronauts are still on the space station.
Four were flown up by SpaceX and the other three by a Russian Soyuz craft.
The mission represented a successful collaboration between the American space agency and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has become Nasa’s chosen commercial space flight partner.
Resilience is due to be refurbished before being sent back into space for the Inspiration4 mission, due to launch in September. Underpinning the mission is the growing commercialisation of space.
Nasa, which was set the task of sending men to Mars by the former president, Donald Trump, is trying to boost its income by persuading the private sector to share the cost of exploration.
It has also been keen to end its reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, triggering competition between SpaceX, owned by Mr Musk and aviation giant Boeing.
SpaceX now finds itself in pole position, according to Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. “Nasa has released itself from dependence on the Russians and this has completed the cycle of using [SpaceX’s] Dragon spaceships for the operation,” he said. “It should be seen in the context of the award of the lunar landing contract. This shows that Nasa is willing to trust SpaceX with the lives of its astronauts.”
The lunar contract is being challenged by commercial rivals, including Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos. But Mr Musk’s company is in a strong position, Mr McDowell added.
“SpaceX has completed two successful manned flights while Boeing is waiting for its Starliner to complete its second robotic test flight.
“When the contracts were put out, Boeing was seen as the safe option and SpaceX was the gamble. It’s looking like the other way around now.How the mighty have fallen.”
“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX’s Mission Control radioed moments after splashdown. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer programme, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.” “We’ll take those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins.
“Are they transferrable?”
SpaceX replied that the astronauts would have to check with the company’s marketing department.
Within a half-hour of splashdown, the charred capsule – resembling a giant toasted marshmallow – had been hoisted onto the recovery ship, with the astronauts exiting soon afterward. Nasa and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the operation went. The company’s senior adviser, Hans Koenigsmann, said “it looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else”.
(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited