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SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth with rare night splashes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX probably returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday and caused the first American crew to spray in the dark since the Apollo 8 lunar shot.

The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m. and ended the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company.

It was a quick trip home that lasted only 6 1/2 hours.

The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule – named Resilience – which they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.

“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thank you for flying SpaceX,”

; SpaceX’s Mission Control sent moments after the splashdown. “For those of you who have signed up for our frequent flyer program, you have earned 68 million miles on this journey.”

“We’re taking those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. “Are they transferable?” SpaceX replied that the astronauts should check with the company’s marketing department.

Within half an hour of the splashdown, the charred capsule – resembling a giant toasted marshmallow – had been hoisted onto the recovery ship, which was equipped with bright spotlights.

The 167-day mission was the longest for a crew capsule launched from the United States. The previous record of 84 days was set by NASA’s last astronauts at the Skylab station in 1974.

Saturday night’s docking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.

“Soil!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the capsule’s pilot, tweeted after leaving the station. “One step closer to family and home!”

Hopkins and Glover – along with NASA’s Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi – should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but high offshore winds forced SpaceX to provide a few daytime landing attempts. Leaders switched to a rare splashdown in the dark to take advantage of calm weather.

SpaceX had practiced a nocturnal return, just in case, and even recovered its latest station capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in the dark. Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it entered the atmosphere again; it looked like a bright star shining through the night sky.

All four main parachutes could be seen in use just before the splashdown, which was also visible in the infrared.

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Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was out in full force to enforce an 11-mile hold-out zone around the bubbling Dragon capsule. For SpaceX’s first crew back in August, pleasure craft swarmed the capsule, a safety hazard.

Once out of the capsule, the astronauts planned to hop on a helicopter for the short flight to the coast and then take a flight directly to Houston for a reunion with their families.

Their capsule, Resilience, returns to Cape Canaveral for the renovation of SpaceX’s first private crew mission in September. The space station docking mechanism is removed and a brand new domed window is put in place.

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