SpaceX makes splashdown after astronauts leave International Space Station

Elon Musk's private rocket company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years

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Four astronauts aboard Elon Musk’s private rocket ride splashed down at midnight on Friday.

Less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station, the three US astronauts and one German plunged back to Earth and plopped into the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa on the Florida coast. Nasa expected to have them back in Houston later in the morning.

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

Mr Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer, were out of the capsule within an hour of splashdown, waving and giving thumbs-up before being whisked away for medical checks.

They said their departure from the space station on Thursday was bittersweet.

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

SpaceX brought up their US and Italian replacements last week, after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen.

That amounts to two crew launches and two splashdowns in barely a month. Mr Musk’s company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years, since it started ferrying astronauts for Nasa. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.

Astronauts Matthais Maurer, Tom Marshburn, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft after having landed in the Gulf of Mexico. AFP / Nasa

Barely five hours after splashdown, the company founded in 2002 launched more of its own internet satellites, known as Starlinks, from Cape Canaveral. There were 53 of the mini flat-panel satellites in this predawn load.

SpaceX vice president William Gerstenmaier told reporters: “Satellites are nice, but flying people is a little special and a little bit different, and the team here sure understands that. 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 problem of note in the latest flight was a mechanical nut that wiggled loose and floated away from the SpaceX capsule after Thursday’s undocking. Officials assured everyone it would not pose a danger to the space station.

The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their ex-astronaut escort who dropped by in April, opening up the station to paying guests after decades of resistance.

On the downside, they had to contend with a dangerous surge in space junk after Russia blew up a satellite in a missile test in mid-November, producing about 1,500 pieces of shrapnel.

While the war in Ukraine has caused tension between the US and Russia, the astronauts have stood by their Russian crewmates, and vice versa. Flight controllers in Houston and Moscow also continued to co-operate as always, Nasa officials said.

As he relinquished command of the space station earlier this week, Mr Marshburn called it “a place of peace” and said international co-operation would likely be its lasting legacy. Russian Oleg Artemyev, the new commander, also emphasised the “peace between our countries, our friendship” in orbit and described his crewmates as brothers and sisters.

Currently orbiting are three Russians, three Americans and one Italian.

Updated: May 06, 2022, 2:59 PM