Four astronauts returned to Earth Monday in a SpaceX craft after spending six months on the International Space Station, a NASA live broadcast showed, marking the end of a busy mission. The international crew conducted thousands of experiments in orbit and helped upgrade the solar panels on the ISS during their "Crew-2" mission, reports AFP.
Its descent slowed by four huge parachutes, their Dragon spacecraft -- dubbed "Endeavour" -- splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico at 10:33 pm (0333 GMT Tuesday) before it was lifted onto a recovery ship. NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide of Japan and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency were then taken out of the capsule and placed on stretchers as a precautionary measure -- human bodies need to re-adjust to gravity after extended periods in space.
The ISS activities of the Crew-2 astronauts included documenting the surface of the Earth to record human-caused changes and natural events, growing Hatch chile peppers, and studying worms to better understand human health changes in space.
"Proud to have represented France once again in space! Next stop, the Moon?" Pesquet had tweeted ahead of the trip home.
Their journey back to Earth began when Endeavour undocked from the ISS at 2:05 pm (1905 GMT, NASA announced.
It then looped around the ISS for around an hour-and-a-half to take photographs, the first such mission since a Russian Soyuz performed a similar maneuver in 2018.
The Dragon, which flew mostly autonomously, has a small circular window at the top of its forward hatch through which the astronauts can point their cameras.
Bad weather and what NASA called a "minor medical issue" have also pushed back the departure of the next set of astronauts, on the Crew-3 mission, which is now set to launch Wednesday.
Until then, the ISS will be crewed by only three astronauts -- two Russians and one American.
SpaceX began providing astronauts a taxi service to the ISS in 2020, ending nine years of US reliance on Russian rockets for the journey following the end of the Space Shuttle program.
The crew faced a final challenge on their journey home -- they had to wear diapers after a problem was detected with the craft's waste management system, forcing it to remain offline.
The astronauts had no access to a toilet from the time the hatch closed at 12:40 pm (1740 GMT) until after splashdown -- around 10 hours.
"Of course that's sub-optimal, but we're prepared to manage," McArthur said during a press conference ahead of the departure.
"Spaceflight is full of lots of little challenges, this is just one more that we'll encounter and take care of in our mission."
A SpaceX all-tourist crew encountered a similar waste-related problem during a September flight, which triggered an alarm system.
NASA later said a tube had come unglued, sending urine to the capsule's fan system instead of a storage tank.