‘We welcome you back to planet Earth’: SpaceX brings four astronauts home with rare night splashdown

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In this image made from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon capsule floats after landing 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, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot. (NASA TV via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX safely returned four astronauts from the International Space Station on Sunday, making the first U.S. crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 moonshot.

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

It was an express trip home, lasting just 6 1/2 hours.

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

“We welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX's Mission Control radioed moments after splashdown. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you've earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

“We'll take those miles,” said spacecraft commander Mike Hopkins. “Are they transferrable?” SpaceX replied that the astronauts would have to check with the company's marketing department.

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the charred capsule — resembling a giant toasted marshmallow — had been hoisted onto the recovery ship, with the astronauts exiting soon afterward. NASA and SpaceX managers marveled at how fast and smooth the operation went. The company's senior adviser, Hans Koenigsmann, said “it looked more like a race car pit stop than anything else.”

Hopkins was the first one out, doing a little dance as he emerged under the intense spotlights.