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Four astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule returned home from the International Space Station on Friday, ending a nearly six-month stay in the orbiting laboratory.
The astronauts – NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, as well as Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, or ESA – said goodbye to other astronauts on the space station and docked in their spacecraft around 10:00 a.m.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft left its docking port on the ISS around noon ET and gradually homeward toward the edge of Earth’s thick inner atmosphere. Then, he re-ignited his thrusters to guide the capsule as it began to re-enter. This step began to slow the spacecraft from its orbital speed of about 17,500 miles per hour. A heat shield protected the astronauts as the fiery thrust toward Earth heated the spacecraft’s exterior to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius).
The parachutist then slowed its descent even further as it began its splashdown off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida by 5:00 PM ET. Rescue ships waited nearby and pulled the spacecraft out of the water, allowing the astronauts to exit the capsule and take their first breaths of fresh air in nearly 170 days.
Called Crew-4, the mission 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 growing vegetables in soilless space and studying the effects of spaceflight on the human body.
The experiments are intended to help astronauts understand how they might one day grow their own food and how their bodies might respond to missions deeper into space, such as NASA’s planned Artemis moon missions, Watkins said at a press briefing last week.
“It was wonderful to walk into the Columbus module and smell the leaves growing, the 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 history on that mission. Last month, she took over as commander of the space station, becoming the first European woman to do so.
Cristoforetti also carried out a spacewalk in July to place it small satellites and working on installing a new robotic arm on the exterior of the space station.
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