SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts return to Earth in rare nighttime splashdown

Four astronauts, three from NASA and one from JAXA, return after six-month stay on ISS.

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The Crew Dragon astronauts on the recovery ship shortly after landing in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.

Bill Ingalls/NASA

SpaceX returned four astronauts to Earth early Sunday morning after a six-month stay on the International Space Station, splashing them down in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first nighttime US splashdown since Apollo 8 in 1968.

The Crew-1 astronauts, three American and one Japanese, landed near Panama City, Florida, just before 3 a.m. ET. It was the second time humans have returned to Earth on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

"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," spacecraft commander Col. Mike Hopkins said moments after landing. "Are they transferrable?"

The Crew Dragon capsule, named Resilience, launched in November with NASA astronauts Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker on board -- along with Soichi Noguchi of Japan's space agency, JAXA. The undocking leaves seven astronauts at the ISS, since the Crew-2 mission arrived on the Endeavour spacecraft earlier in the week.

"All four crew members are in great shape and great spirits and doing really well," Holly Ridings, NASA's chief flight director, said at a news conference after the landing.

The astronauts' 167-day stay aboard the ISS was the longest for a crew launching from the US, breaking the previous record of 84 days set by Skylab astronauts in 1974.

The last predawn splashdown occurred on Dec. 27, 1968, when Apollo 8, the first crewed flight to the moon, landed in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.