A group of four NASA astronauts landed in California on Tuesday after spending 213 days in space — the longest spaceflight of their lives. The five-member crew, including Mission Specialist Kate Rubins, Commander Joe Acaba, Pilot Anne McClain and Flight Engineers Sunita Williams and Joseph Acaba, touched down at 11:11 a.m. local time after circling the Earth four times.
“Wow, this is a really, really beautiful view of California. Thank you everyone for making us so welcome,” Williams said in a video before they touched down.
“CIRV–Welcome back to earth,” Mission Control called out to the crew.
Astronauts usually reach their respective planets from low orbit, but NASA chose to spend so much time in space to test the crew’s communication, pressure and fluid-recycling systems, testing equipment that would be used for long-duration flights in space and which could also be ready for reuse later. (Usually, a single mission, which is roughly six months in duration, is not enough time to gather enough data to move forward with a longer space mission.)
The crew ventured in space without Sputnik 1, which was launched to Earth orbit in 1957 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s 1,000th day in space and were not required to pass required proficiency tests. Before them, the previous record-holder was American Dr. Scott Kelly and his Russian colleague, Mikhail Kornienko, who spent a total of 520 days in space.
An estimated 1.5 million people turned out to see the astronauts make their way through the crowds at the runway. The $133 million space capsule landed in the Vina del Mar International Airport in California’s Baja California Peninsula. The crew was interviewed by Peter Hessler of The New Yorker and Conan O’Brien in space. They shared videos during their trek back to Earth.
Today, the crew of @SpaceX’s Dragon capsule — flight 2, known as Demo-1 — launched on the International Space Station at 6:35 AM ET and blasted into space at 17,500 mph. #StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/7zYCz9Zp25 — SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 27, 2018
“It’s been amazing,” McClain told The New Yorker before the flight. “Just being part of a crew, kind of like siblings or anything, to share this experience — to not only have all the skills, but also to be trusted to operate this and to keep all of these systems safe.”
Members of the NASA team have extolled the historic nature of this mission, particularly over social media. “Today marks the most days spent in space in one mission for our agency since Walter Cunningham and Christa McAuliffe on Apollo 7 in 1968,” writes Michael Foale, NASA’s former director of crew operations, on Twitter. “We have more than tripled the average day in space flight time for our astronauts during the past five years.”
President Donald Trump responded to Twitter’s tweets with congratulations to the crew on their success. “We congratulate all on a long-awaited return to Earth,” he wrote, calling them “the real shot in the arm for NASA.”
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and a group of space fans marked the event with a Twitter event entitled #GoThe5. “We are humans only at our core – independent and autonomous explorers,” Bridenstine says in a teaser. “This mission we’re doing will inspire our next generation.”