By Katabella Roberts
The return via a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule came just one day after the group undocked from the space station following a six-month mission in which they conducted science experiments and did maintenance.
Dragon and Crew-3 astronauts consisted of Raja Chari, a U.S. Air Force combat jet and test pilot who served as mission commander, Tom Marshburn, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon, Kayla Barron, a U.S. Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer, and Matthias Maurer, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut and materials science engineer.
They returned to Earth and splashed down off the coast of Florida at 12:43 a.m. ET on Friday. NASA expected to have them back in Houston later in the morning.
“On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome home … It’s been an absolute honor to support you on this mission, Endurance Crew, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” space officials said over SpaceX’s livestream.
“Thanks for letting us take Endurance … looking forward to watching more flights with Endurance in the future. It was a great ride and enjoyed working with the SpaceX and NASA team for getting us up to the space station and back so quickly,” astronaut Chari said after they touched down.
The crew was first launched into space on Nov 10, 2021, at 9:03 p.m from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
They embraced the seven astronauts remaining at the station—Crew 4 commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Bob Hines, Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti; and three Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov—before parting ways.
Those replacement astronauts, from the United States and Italy, were taken up to space last week after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk whose proposal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion was recently accepted by the social media platform’s board of directors.
The Tesla CEO supplies the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules that are flying NASA astronauts to orbit.
Astronauts returning from the latest expedition had to contend with a dangerous increase in space debris after Russia blew up a satellite in a missile test on Nov. 15, generating hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk that posed potential threats to the safety of astronauts.
That incident created more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris” according to U.S. Department of State spokesperson, Ned Price.
In total, roughly 36,500 pieces of debris at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide are currently floating around Earth, the ESA estimates.
The latest launch last week means that Musk’s company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years since it began taking up astronauts for NASA. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.