Crew-1 Astronauts Splash Down Safely, a Milestone

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker exits the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft.
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

HOUSTON - Four NASA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts made a weather-delayed return to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) on May 2, as their SpaceX Crew-1 Dragon capsule, also known as Resilience, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

Michael Hopkins, the Crew-1 Dragon commander, pilot Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, all of NASA, and JAXA's Soichi Noguchi were met within six minutes by the first of SpaceX's three recovery vessels, among them Go Navigator, which was equipped to hoist the capsule aboard and assist the astronauts through the hatch.

U.S. Coast Guard assets were at the ready to prevent recreational boaters from straying too close.

The Crew-1 Dragon splashed down under parachute at 2:56 a.m. EDT on May 2, ending a 168-day mission, after departing the zenith docking port on the ISS's Harmony module on May 1 at 8:35 p.m., maneuvering away from orbital lab and executing a 16-min., 23-sec. deorbit burn at 2:03 a.m.

The spacecraft was hoisted aboard Go Navigator 30 min. after the splashdown and the crew hatch opened 10 min. later.

"It's great to be back," Hopkins radioed the ground team before becoming the first to emerge. "You all are changing the world."
Initially planned for April 28, the splashdown was delayed three days, then one day, due to unfavorable winds in the Gulf waters off the Florida panhandle.

It was the first nighttime splashdown recovery of NASA astronauts since the predawn return of the Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27, 1968,  following the first-ever journey by human explorers to lunar orbit and back to Earth.

The timing and splashdown site were selected from seven candidates on the Gulf and Atlantic sides of the Florida coast to afford low winds and wave heights, explained Steve Stich, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager. The Gulf waters off Tampa, Florida, served as a backup to Panama City, which as it turned out hosted winds of less than 3 kt. (3.5 mph) and wave heights of less than a foot.

SpaceX rehearsed the nighttime recovery with the Jan. 13 nighttime return of its 21st NASA-contracted cargo mission to the ISS with a splashdown upon its return to Earth in the Gulf waters off Tampa. Previous cargo missions had settled under parachute into the Pacific waters off the southern California coast.

The Crew-1 round trip marked the first NASA Commercial Crew Program regularly scheduled launch and return of ISS astronauts, following the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 test flight to the ISS by NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley from May 30 to Aug. 2, 2020. The post Demo-2 certification by NASA of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon for the regularly scheduled transport of astronauts to and from the ISS reinstated a U.S. human space launch capability lost when NASA's space shuttle fleet was retired in July 2011.

The Resilience Crew-1 Dragon mission lifted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 15, 2020, and docked to the ISS a day later.

"This is our first full-up crew rotation mission, and we on the NASA side and I know on the SpaceX side have learned a lot," Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told a May 2 post-landing news briefing. "On the NASA side we are going to take this learning into our future commercial crew missions with Boeing and most importantly the Artemis missions. I know the SpaceX folks will keep doing these missions. I don't know how you could have done this one much better."

Boeing is continuing to work with NASA's Commercial Crew Program to achieve certification through uncrewed and crewed test flights of the CST-100 Starliner to become a second U.S. provider of regularly scheduled crew launches to the ISS.

As with the ISS, NASA is working through the Artemis initiative to establish international and commercial partnerships to return to the surface of the Moon with human explorers and achieve a sustained human lunar presence to prepare for expeditions to Mars.

Following their recovery and initial medical checks, the Crew-1 astronauts were to be flown by helicopter from the Go Navigator recovery vessel to Pensacola, Florida, where they were to board a NASA aircraft for a flight to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin a 45-day partial quarantine that will include coronavirus vaccinations and a post-flight program to readjust physically to gravity.

As they departed the ISS, command of the orbital outpost's Expedition 65 transitioned from Walker to JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, an aerospace engineer who flew to the ISS as a space shuttle crew member in 2008 and spent 124 days aboard the ISS in 2012 as a member of the Russian Soyuz TMA-05M crew.

Hoshide is the second from JAXA to command the ISS. Koichi Wakata served as the station's commander from March 19 until May 12, 2014.

"It's been truly a pleasure and an honor to be commander of this marvelous machine and amazing crew," Walker said during a traditional change of command ceremony on April 27. "It's a time that I will cherish forever."

The Dragon Crew-1 departure concludes a 14-person crew exchange that began with the April 9 launch and docking of Russia's Soyuz MS-18, delivering NASA's Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov.  They are serving over the next six months with NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Thomas Pesquet as well as Hoshide, who launched and docked aboard the SpaceX Crew-2 Dragon capsule on April 23-24.

The ISS Expedition 64/65 crew exchange keeps the station's U.S. segment staffed at five astronauts from ESA and JAXA as well as NASA, plus the two cosmonauts in the Russian segment.

Altogether, the U.S. segment astronauts are trained to participate in and oversee more than 250 science investigations and technology demonstrations and participate in spacewalks upgrading the orbital lab's solar power system with new Roll Out Solar Arrays, which are to begin arriving aboard SpaceX Dragon cargo missions in June.

Resilience is to be refurbished by SpaceX to launch again on the SpaceX Inspiration multi-day, low Earth orbit mission later this year. The all-civilian mission will be led by Jared Isaacman, a jet pilot and founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments. Isaacman will be accompanied by three others as part of a charitable venture to raise money for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Mark Carreau

Mark is based in Houston, where he has written on aerospace for more than 25 years. While at the Houston Chronicle, he was recognized by the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Foundation in 2006 for his professional contributions to the public understanding of America's space program through news reporting.