SpaceX astronauts returning from ISS will splash down in darkness

SpaceX will attempt to recover its crew capsule this week in darkness, splashing down astronauts in the ocean under cover of the night for the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968. SpaceX is targeting the predawn hours of Sunday to return three NASA astronauts and one Japanese astronaut to earth after high winds prevented a pair of earlier returns.

The quartet of astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon capsule are the second crew to fly on SpaceX hardware to and from the ISS. The astronauts will depart the ISS on Saturday night and splashdown 6.5 hours later at around 3 AM in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida. While this is the first return of crew splashing down during darkness, SpaceX has returned cargo capsules during the night in the past.

Since SpaceX has experience returning and retrieving capsules under cover of night, NASA feels confident in recovering the astronauts without issues. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said that SpaceX has performed numerous dress rehearsals and spent a lot of time conducting nighttime recoveries.

As for why the crew doesn't simply return a few hours later when the sun is up, Navias says the 3 AM timeslot provides the best weather. Aboard the crew dragon capsule are Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi. The replacement crew for the departing astronauts arrived at the ISS last week in a different SpaceX capsule.

Prior to the departure today, with the additional astronauts aboard the ISS, it was at its highest capacity for crewmembers in many years. The departure of the four astronauts also kicks off the next expedition officially.