It was the first official crew to have made that journey in a SpaceX craft, as the name suggests, though astronauts had made the same trip in the final test. It was also the first Nasa nighttime landing since the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, with difficult conditions in recent days forcing the original arrival times to be delayed.
The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, just before 3am, 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.
Their 167-day mission is the longest for astronauts launching from the U.S. The previous record of 84 days was set by Nasa’s final Skylab station crew in 1974.
Saturday night’s undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.
“Earthbound!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted after departing the station. “One step closer to family and home!”
Glover — along with Nasa’s Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi — should have returned to Earth last Wednesday, but high offshore winds forced SpaceX to pass up a pair of daytime landing attempts. Managers switched to a rare splashdown in darkness, to take advantage of calm weather.
SpaceX had practiced for a nighttime return, just in case, and even recovered its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in darkness. Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; it resembled a bright star streaking through the night sky.All four main parachutes could be seen deploying just before splashdown, which was also visible in the infrared.
Apollo 8 — Nasa’s first flight to the moon with astronauts — ended with a predawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on Dec. 27, 1968. Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan, blown off course in a blizzard.
That was it for nighttime crew splashdowns — until Sunday.Despite the early hour, the Coast Guard was out in full force to enforce an 11-mile (18-kilometer) keep-out zone around the bobbing Dragon capsule.
An Israeli airstrike struck a high-rise building in central Gaza City as journalist Youmna Al Sayed reported live for Al Jazeera from a neighbouring building.