NASA, SpaceX mission: Astronauts return from Astronauts returning from space station splash down off Florida coast International Space Station

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Four astronauts boarded a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and returned home from the International Space Station on Friday, ending their nearly six-month stay aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The astronauts — NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti with the European Space Agency, or ESA — shared goodbye hugs with fellow astronauts on the space station and strapped into their spacecraft around 1 p.m. 10 A.M.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft left its docking port at the ISS around noon ET and made a gradual trek home toward the edge of Earth’s thick inner atmosphere. The capsule then re-ignited its thrusters to orient itself as it began re-entry. This step began to decelerate the spacecraft from its orbital speed of about 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour). A heat shield kept the astronauts protected as the fiery impact back toward Earth heated the spacecraft’s exterior to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius).

A plume of parachutes then further slowed its descent before making a splashdown landing off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, just before 10 p.m. 17 A.M. Rescue ships waited nearby and towed the spacecraft out of the water so the astronauts could exit the capsule and take their first breath of fresh air in about 170 days.

This mission, called Crew-4, marked a historic first, with Watkins becoming the first black woman to join the space station crew for an extended stay.

During their stay, the astronauts conducted scientific experiments, including research into how to grow vegetables in space without soil, and the study of the effects of spaceflight on the human body.

These experiments are designed to help astronauts understand how they might one day grow their own food and how their bodies might respond on missions deeper into space, such as on NASA’s planned Artemis moon missions, Watkins said during a news briefing last week.

“It’s been amazing to be able to walk into the Columbus module and smell the smell of leaves growing, of plants growing,” Watkins told reporters.

Cristoforetti, who was on a previous mission to the space station in 2014-2015, is the only woman in ESA’s astronaut corps, and she made her own story on this mission. Last month, she took over as commander of the space station, becoming the first European woman to do so.

Cristoforetti also completed a spacewalk in July to deploy small satellites and work on the installation of a new robotic arm on the space station’s exterior.

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