Splashdown! Four astronauts who spent 21 DAYS in space return to Earth in SpaceX capsule that shot through atmosphere at 17,500 mph

Advertisement

The crew of Axiom Space’s Ax-3 mission splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean this morning, capping off their three-week journey to the International Space Station (ISS) with a safe return.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying the four astronauts plummeted through our planet’s atmosphere at speeds reaching 17,500 miles per hour, eventually drifting down on parachutes to rest in calm waters off the coast of Daytona, Florida.

Air speeds of this magnitude create massive amounts of friction, which turns into heat, testing the limits of the capsule’s heat shields with temperatures estimated at 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, according to SpaceX.

The Dragon capsule’s splashdown just before 8:30 a.m. EST marked the end of Axiom’s third mission into low Earth orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon Crew capsule bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Daytona, Florida, after splashing down. Its surface was scorched from the immense heat created during reentry

The SpaceX Dragon Crew capsule bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Daytona, Florida, after splashing down. Its surface was scorched from the immense heat created during reentry

Astronauts jettisoned the Dragon’s trunk at 7:37 a.m. EST, shedding the disposable section that sits just below the crew compartment.

At 7:55, they had completed a de-orbit burn, bringing the capsule out of Earth’s orbit and into its reentry path.

Once the capsule entered the atmosphere, its friction against the surrounding air created an ‘envelope’ of plasma around the craft. This temporarily disrupted communication with ground control, a routine part of spacecraft landing.

The capsule re-entered Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean just west of Mexico. It flew over the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida before landing in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:30 a.m. EST

The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean just west of Mexico. It flew over the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida before landing in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:30 a.m. EST

At about 8:25, the astronauts rotated their seats so they would be sitting upright as the capsule fell to Earth – rather than facing upward, like they do during launch.

Minutes later, the parachutes deployed and the craft drifted down to the ocean. 

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashed down just before 8:30 a.m. EST on Friday. Soon after it was loaded onto a recovery vessel

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashed down just before 8:30 a.m. EST on Friday. Soon after it was loaded onto a recovery vessel

Ax-3, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 18, was SpaceX’s first trip to carry an all-European crew.

Michael López-Alegría, 65, was the commander of Ax-3. He is a former NASA astronaut and a Spanish-American dual citizen.

He was joined by Swedish aviator Marcus Wandt, 43, another mission specialist, Alper Gezeravci, 44, and Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, 49. 

Walter Villadei is from Italy, Alper Gezeravcı has become Turkey’s first astronaut, and Swedish Marcus Wandt is also onboard. 

The crew of Ax-3 gave the thumbs up after safely splashing down in the ocean, while they were being placed aboard a recovery vessel

The crew of Ax-3 gave the thumbs up after safely splashing down in the ocean, while they were being placed aboard a recovery vessel

During their time aboard the ISS, they took part in various experiments aimed at the future of long-term human space travel. 

These experiments included testing a muscle stimulation and monitoring suit, testing the stress responses of gene-edited plants growing in microgravity, tracking bone density in microgravity, and monitoring astronauts’ sleep patterns in space. 

Depending on weather, the capsule could have landed at multiple ocean splashdown sites.

To prepare, SpaceX had stationed recovery vessels on either side of the state, both in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Spreading the supported sites across multiple locations helps to maximize the return opportunities for this mission in future crews, lowering the chance that we’ll have to wave off due to bad weather,” said SpaceX production and engineering manager Jessie Anderson in a livestream of the reentry.