Crew-1 Successfully Returns to Earth in Nighttime Splashdown

The first fully operational mission of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Crew-1, has successfully returned to Earth in the first nighttime splashdown since Apollo 8 in 1968. They came down in the Gulf of Mexico not far from Panama City, Florida.

“All four crew members are in great shape and great spirits and doing really well,” said NASA Chief Flight Director Holly Ridings.

The previous mission, Demo-2, returned to Earth in a similar manner. Demo-2 was the final test flight for the Crew Dragon under a NASA contract and featured the first privately owned spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Post-flight inspections of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon led to numerous improvements of the spacecraft, most notably a reinforced design for the heat shield due to an unexpected amount of “wear and tear” in some places during reentry.

This Crew Dragon is currently being reused for the Crew-2 mission, which launched early in the morning of April 23. Due to the number of spacecraft that are currently docked to the International Space Station, Crew-1 had to move its Crew Dragon to another port to make room for Crew-2 to dock to the zenith port. While both Crew Dragons were docked to the space station, it hosted a record-setting 11 astronauts and cosmonauts.

Crew-1 returned to Earth on the Crew Dragon named “Resilience” by the crew shortly before 3 am Eastern time. The crew included NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, as well as JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX. For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage,” Mission Control radioed to Resilience shortly after splashdown.

“We’ll take those miles. Are they transferable?” spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins kidded back.

Resilience launched last November for a 167-day stay on the International Space Station. The success of SpaceX and the Commercial Crew Program has caused some annoyance for the Russians, which had a monopoly on crewed space launches since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011. SpaceX’s contract with NASA represents a $25 million per seat cost savings over launches on the Russian Soyuz.

Although Russian space agency Roscosmos has not publicly criticized the Commercial Crew program, it did order cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko to remain in the Russian segment of the International Space Station when the Crew Dragon docked. Some Russian aerospace contractors have certainly had some things to say about Elon Musk and SpaceX.

“The Crew Dragon spacecraft designed for missions to the ISS, and Falcon 9 launch vehicle are a far cry from a spacecraft and a rocket that are needed for a mission towards the Moon,” said RSC Energia general director Vladimir Solntsev in 2017.

Of course, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy may be capable of launching some hardware such as components of the Lunar Gateway into lunar orbit, but were never meant to launch actual crews to the Moon or Mars. SpaceX is currently developing the Starship rocket and derivatives like the Starship Human Landing System for crewed missions to other worlds. It has made improvements to the SN15 prototype based on data from the last few high-altitude test flights, which engineers say they got good data out of even though they ended explosively. The FAA was satisfied enough with the improvements to approve the next three high-altitude test flights.

The Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station make use of the Falcon 9 and Crew-2 was the first to reuse both the Crew Dragon spacecraft and a Falcon 9 first stage rocket stage booster. Crew-1 was the first of six operational missions being conducted under the Commercial Crew contract between SpaceX and NASA.