The Crew-5 astronauts returned to Earth on the evening of Saturday, March 11, after spending the last five months aboard the International Space Station. Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA, Koichi Wakata of JAXA, and Anna Kikina of Roscosmos undocked their Crew Dragon, C210 Endurance, early on Saturday at 2:20 AM EST (07:20 UTC).
Once Endurance undocked from the PMA-2 forward docking port on the Station’s Harmony node module, the spacecraft backed away and progressively drifted further from the Station. Following a nominal set of EOM (End Of Mission) events, splashdown occurred Saturday at 9:02 PM EST (02:02 UTC Sunday, March 12).
During the last week, the Crew-5 astronauts have been conducting direct handover activities to help the Crew-6 astronauts settle into life aboard the Station. During a typical handover, the outgoing crew will pack their spacecraft with cargo, perform refresher training for their splashdown, and gather any final biological samples from themselves for medical studies.
Since docking with the Station on Oct. 6, 2022, the Crew-5 members have conducted around 200 science experiments and technology demonstrations. These include experiments with heart muscle cells derived from stem cells, an experiment to study how liquids move in a container in simulated lunar gravity, the Veg-05 investigation to grow dwarf tomatoes, and the Sphere Camera-1 to study the performance of an ultra-high resolution camera in the microgravity environment, among many others.
Crew-5 member Anna Kikina, an engineer, also became the first Russian cosmonaut to fly aboard an American spacecraft since Nikolai Budarin flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2002 as an STS-113 crewmember. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, a pilot and structural engineer, took part in his first-ever spacewalk as part of his long spaceflight career. Josh Cassada, a physicist and test pilot, helped to install an iROSA array to the ISS during three EVAs in late 2022.
During the direct handover from Crew-5 to Crew-6, there have been 11 crew members on board the Station, along with three on the Chinese Tiangong space station, for a total of 14 human beings in orbit. With Crew-5 leaving the Station, the Crew-6 astronauts and the Soyuz MS-22/23 crew are left on board, with the Soyuz crew now spending around a year on ISS due to the MS-22 coolant leak.
There are seven splashdown sites off the Florida coast designated as recovery zones for Crew (and Cargo) Dragon spacecraft, in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. A primary and a secondary splashdown zone are agreed upon approximately two weeks before departure from ISS.
The available sites are off the coasts of Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee, Tampa, Jacksonville, Daytona, and the northern part of Cape Canaveral.
The Crew-5 members conducted farewell remarks aboard ISS on Wednesday, March 8, before their initially scheduled boarding of Endurance and undocking from the Station. At the same time, NASA was closely monitoring the weather for the upcoming splashdown.
The weather requirements for Crew Dragon splashdowns are as follows: no lightning within 10 miles, waves with no greater than a seven-degree slope, wind speed no greater than 12 miles per hour, less than a 25 percent chance of rain, and at least one-half mile visibility in the daytime or one mile at night. Crew-5’s return to Earth was pushed back due to these requirements not being met on Friday.
The SpaceX recovery ship Megan has been conducting rehearsals for the crew recovery while off Cape Canaveral, while sister ship Shannon has sailed to support recovery operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Megan, named after astronaut Megan McArthur, and Shannon, named after astronaut Shannon Walker, have been used on other Crew and Cargo Dragon missions to retrieve the spacecraft and crew members.
With Crew-5 splashdown expected later this week, Dragon recovery ship Megan is out at sea this evening completing the typical pre-event rehearsals.
The helicopter teams are in the area and one has recently landed on Megan offshore.
— Gav Cornwell (@SpaceOffshore) March 6, 2023
Megan and Shannon are equipped with a helipad for astronauts to be transported to shore, a medical facility for observation and assessment of astronauts’ conditions, and radars to track the spacecraft. They also use a lifting frame to hoist the spacecraft onto the aft deck, where the astronauts can be carried into the medical facility.
While the members of Crew-5 have conducted a successful mission, the first female Crew Dragon commander discussed what she was looking forward to during a March 1 press event aboard ISS. Nicole Mann, a combat veteran, test pilot, and the first Native American woman in space, stated “I know for me personally, I’m really excited to feel the wind on my face, to smell the grass in the air, and to taste all the delicious food back on Earth.”
(Lead image: Crew Dragon Endurance docking to ISS in October 2022. Credit: NASA)