FLORIDA — After a nearly six-month stint aboard the International Space Station, the astronauts of the SpaceX Crew-3 mission returned to Earth on Friday morning.

The Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft splashed down off the coast of Tampa at 12:43 a.m., ending a 177-day mission for the four astronauts.

What You Need To Know

  •        The Crew-3 astronauts splashed down off the coast of Tampa early Friday morning

  •        Splashdown happened just hours before the Starlink Group 4-17 launch

  •        The next launch for the Commercial Crew Program will the Boeing Starliner OFT-2 mission on May 19

“It’s always a huge relief to see those drogues deploy and seeing those four main (parachutes) unfurl so beautifully,” said Kathy Lueders, the associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “I’m so thrilled that we can once again safely hand over a crew to their friends and family.”

The operation capped off a historically busy month for SpaceX when it came to human spaceflight. The company launched and returned four private astronauts for Axiom Mission 1 for Axiom Space. It also launched the four Crew-4 astronauts to the International Space Station in partnership with both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

SpaceX also managed to fit in three Starlink launches and a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office between all those activities. During a post-splashdown media teleconference, Bill Gerstenmaier, the vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said the company relies on having multiple teams being able to run in tandem.

“I think this is a great time to be in spaceflight and think we’re poised well as a company to support these multiple activities and our heads not swiveling around,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’re really focused on each individual activity, and we can accomplish them one at a time.”

The splashdown of Crew-3 comes less than two years after the first flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft with humans on board with the Demo-2 mission in May 2020. It is also just shy of the 10-year anniversary of the SpaceX COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) Demo Flight 2 (COTS 2). That mission was the second test flight of the uncrewed Cargo Dragon spacecraft in May 2012.

 “At that time, we knew at least for cargo, we had to make it happen. So, it was really about us being able to have that core capability. It’s really what enabled the science,” Lueders said. “For me, it’s just been so much fun to see how much we’ve learned from that first mission and evolved as a team, the way we’re doing missions now.”

As of now, the four Crew Dragon spacecraft are each aiming to be certified for five flights each. Gerstenmaier said on Friday morning that the company is working with NASA on that and hopes to be able to fly them beyond that five-flight goal. 

Here’s where each of the Crew Dragons stand as of May 6, 2022:

·      Endeavor (C206) – Demo-2, Crew-2, Axiom-1

·      Resilience (C207)– Crew-1, Inspiration4

·      Endurance (C210) – Crew-3

·      Freedom (C212) – Crew-4

SpaceX also has a fleet of Cargo Dragon spacecraft that bring science and supplies to the ISS. Here’s where those capsules stand:

·      C208 – CRS-21, CRS-23, CRS-25 (planned)

·      C209 – CRS-22, CRS-24

Gerstenmaier said SpaceX doesn't plan to build any more Crew Dragon vehicles for the time being and has one more Cargo Dragon that is currently being manufactured at its facility in Hawthorne, Calif., presumably, C211.

“We have a pretty extensive spares program of major components that we can rapidly put together into another capsule or used to outfit pieces of capsule that are needed,” he said. “You know, we’ll continue to work with NASA, see what the future is, work with the private companies, such as Axiom, and see what the demand is.”

NASA will now turn its attention to its other CCP partner: Boeing. The uncrewed second orbital flight test (OFT-2) of the Starliner spacecraft is set for launch on May 19 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. 

Steve Stich, the manager of the CCP program at Kennedy Space Center, said that the Crew-4 astronauts are preparing for the arrival of Starliner and will retrieve the cargo it brings up once it’s docked. They will also perform a few tests of the capsule.

“One of them is communication between the vehicles while docked. They’ll execute that and a few other things while docked. There’s a few other flight test objectives,” Stich said. “Joel (Montalbano) and I talked to the crew the other day. They’re excited about Starliner coming.” 

That launch is set for May 19.