The fourth long-duration astronaut team launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA departed the orbiting outpost on Friday to begin their flight back to Earth, capping a science mission of nearly six months.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three US NASA astronauts and an Italian crewmate from the European Space Agency undocked from the ISS at 12:05pm EDT (09:35pm IST) to embark on a return flight expected to last nearly five hours.
Live video showing the capsule drifting away from the station as the two vehicles soared high over the North Atlantic was shown on a NASA webcast of the undocking.
Wearing helmeted white-and-black spacesuits, the four astronauts were seen strapped into the crew cabin shortly before the spacecraft separated from the station, orbiting some 250 miles (400kms) above Earth.
A series of several brief rocket thrusts then autonomously pushed the capsule safely clear of the ISS and lowered its orbit to line up the capsule for later atmospheric re-entry and splashdown.
If all goes smoothly, the Crew Dragon, dubbed Freedom, will parachute into the sea off the Atlantic coast of Florida at 4:55pm local time (02:25am IST on Saturday).
The Freedom crew, Americans Kjell Lindgren, 49, Jessica Watkins, 34, and Bob Hines, 47, as well as Italy’s Samantha Cristoferetti, 45, arrived at the station on April 27 following a SpaceX launch that day. Watkins became the first African-American woman to serve on a long-duration mission aboard the ISS.
That crew had been designated as “Crew-4,” the fourth full-fledged long-duration group of astronauts launched to ISS by SpaceX since the private rocket company founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk began flying NASA personnel in May 2020.
Their departure came a week after their replacement team, Crew-5, arrived aboard the station — a Russian cosmonaut, a Japanese astronaut and two NASA crewmates, including the first Native American woman sent to orbit.
Crew-5 is remaining on ISS for now with two other Russians and a third American who shared a Soyuz flight to the ISS in September. One of those cosmonauts, Sergey Prokopyev, assumed ISS command from Cristoferetti of the European Space Agency before Crew-4’s departure.
ISS, spanning the length of a football field, has been continuously occupied since 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
© Thomson Reuters 2022