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SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth with the first nocturnal splashdown since 1968



SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday and caused the first US crew to spray in the dark since the Apollo 8 lunar launch in 1968.

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 only lasted 6 1/2 hours.

NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi headed home in the same Dragon capsule that delivered them to the space station last November.

In this image made by NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday and got the first U.S. crew to inject darkness since Apollo 8 moon shots.  (NASA TV via AP)

In this image made by NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule lands in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Panhandle early Sunday, May 2, 2021. SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday and got the first U.S. crew to inject darkness since Apollo 8 moon shots. (NASA TV via AP)

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Hopkins sent the radio as the capsule disconnected 420 kilometers (420 kilometers) across Mali.

Despite the early splashdown time, the Coast Guard deployed extra patrols – and spotlights – to keep any nightmare away. The capsule for the first SpaceX crew was surrounded by pleasure craft last summer and posed a safety risk.

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This image from video provided by NASA shows the SpaceX capsule as it departs from the International Space Station on Saturday, May 1, 2021. A SpaceX capsule with four astronauts left the International Space Station late on Saturday, aiming for a rare nocturnal splashdown to end the company's second crew flight.  (NASA via AP)

This image from video provided by NASA shows the SpaceX capsule as it departs from the International Space Station on Saturday, May 1, 2021. A SpaceX capsule with four astronauts left the International Space Station late on Saturday, aiming for a rare nocturnal splashdown to end the company’s second crew flight. (NASA via AP)

Hopkins, the spacecraft chief, rocketed into orbit with his crew on November 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Their successors arrived a week ago aboard their own Dragon capsule – the same one that launched SpaceX’s first crew last spring.

The four should have been back earlier, but high sea winds kept them at the space station for a few extra days. SpaceX and NASA decided that the best weather would be before dawn.

The delays allowed Glover to celebrate his 45th birthday in space on Friday.

“Gratitude, wonder, connection. I’m full of and motivated by these feelings on my birthday when my first mission to space ends,” Glover tweeted.

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Saturday night’s depletion left seven astronauts at the space station: three Americans, two Russians, a Japanese and a French.


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