SpaceX brings 4 astronauts home, then launches 53 satellites

Four commercial crew astronauts, from left, European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer and NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn, Raja Chari, and Kayla Barron, pose for a photo in their Dragon spacesuits during a fit check aboard the International Space Station’s Harmony module on April 21. (NASA via AP)

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX brought four astronauts home with a midnight splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, capping the busiest stretch yet for Elon Musk’s taxi service.

The three American astronauts and a German in the capsule were floating off the coast of Florida, near Tampa, less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station. NASA hoped to have them back in Houston later in the morning.

“That was a great trip,” said Raja Chari, the capsule commander. As for the reintroduction to gravity, he noted, “Just one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy.”

Chari, NASA’s Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer emerged from the capsule an hour after splashdown, waving and thumbing as they were wheeled out for medical checks.

Their departure from the space station on Thursday was bittersweet, as they hugged the seven remaining astronauts there.

“It’s the end of a six-month mission, but I think the space dream lives on,” Maurer said.

SpaceX flew in its American and Italian replacements last week, after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen in early April.

That equates to two manned launches and two splashdowns in just one month. Musk’s company has now put 26 people into orbit in less than two years, since it began transporting astronauts for NASA. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.

William Gerstenmaier, vice president of SpaceX, acknowledges that it is “a pretty exciting time.”

Just five hours after splashdown, the company Musk founded in 2002 launched a new batch of its own internet satellites known as Starlinks from Cape Canaveral. There were 53 of the mini flat screen satellites in this pre-dawn load.

“Satellites are nice, but the people who fly them are a little bit special and a little bit different, and the team here understands that,” he told reporters. “There’s a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment that you know you’ve done something good.”

NASA is more impressed than ever, given SpaceX’s unprecedented pace. The only issue of note on the last flight was a mechanical nut that came loose and floated away from the SpaceX capsule after Thursday’s undocking. Officials assured everyone that it would not pose a danger to the space station.

“Look at all this work in the last month,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations mission chief. “I really want to personally thank SpaceX for just, wow, just running such smooth operations on all of those missions.”

The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their escort of former astronauts who arrived in April, opening the NASA side of the station to paying guests after decades of resistance.

On the downside, they had to deal with a dangerous increase in space debris after Russia blew up a satellite in a missile test in mid-November. More than 1,500 pieces of shrapnel will be scattered around Earth’s orbit in the next few years.

While the war in Ukraine has caused tensions between the US and Russia, the astronauts have supported their Russian crewmates and vice versa. Flight controllers in Houston and Moscow also continued to cooperate as usual, according to NASA officials.

When he stepped down from command of the space station earlier this week, Marshburn called it “a place of peace” and said international cooperation would likely be his lasting legacy. Russian Oleg Artemyev, the new commander, also emphasized “peace between our countries, our friendship” in orbit and described his crewmates as brothers and sisters.

Up there now there are three Russians, three Americans and one Italian.

It was Marshburn’s third spaceflight and the first of three to return with him. Chari and Barron’s next stop could be the moon; they are among 18 American astronauts chosen for NASA’s Artemis lunar landing program. Two others in that elite group are now on the space station.

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