SpaceX Brings 4 Astronauts Back To Earth, Then Launches 53 Satellites

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SpaceX Brings 4 Astronauts Back To Earth, Then Launches 53 Satellites
Elon Musk's SpaceX returned the astronauts from the International Space Station before quickly launching a fresh batch of internet satellites.

SpaceX brought four astronauts home with a midnight splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, capping the busiest month yet for Elon Musk’s taxi service.

The three U.S. astronauts and one German in the capsule were bobbing off the Florida coast, near Tampa, less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station. NASA expected to have them back in Houston later in the morning.

Aubrey Gemignani / NASA via AP

“That was a great ride,” said Raja Chari, the capsule commander. As for the reintroduction to gravity, he noted: “Only one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy.”

NASA’s Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer, were out of the capsule within an hour of splashdown, waving and giving thumbs-up as they were hustled away on rolling chaises for medical checks.

Their departure from the space station Thursday was bittersweet, as they embraced the seven astronauts remaining there.

“It’s the end of a six-month mission, but I think the space dream lives on,” Maurer said.

SpaceX brought up their U.S. and Italian replacements last week, after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen.

That amounts to two crew launches and two splashdowns in barely a month. Musk’s company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years, since it started ferrying astronauts for NASA. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.

Barely five hours after splashdown, the company founded by Musk in 2002 launched a fresh batch of its own internet satellites known as Starlinks from Cape Canaveral. There were 53 of the mini flat-panel satellites in this predawn load.

NASA is more impressed than ever, given SpaceX's unprecedented pace. The only problem of note in the latest flight was a mechanical nut that wiggled loose and floated away from the SpaceX capsule following Thursday's undocking. Officials assured everyone it would not pose a danger to the space station.

“Look at all this work in the last month," said Kathy Lueders, NASA's space operations mission chief. “I really want to personally thank SpaceX for just, wow, just performing such seamless operations on all those missions.”

The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their ex-astronaut escort who dropped by in April, opening up NASA’s side of the station to paying guests after decades of resistance.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.