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Four astronauts boarded a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and returned home from the International Space Station on Friday, ending their nearly six-month stay aboard the orbiting laboratory.
The astronauts — NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, or ESA — shared goodbye hugs with other astronauts on the space station and strapped into their spacecraft around 10 a.m. ET.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft left its docking port at the ISS around noon ET and made a gradual hike home to the edge of the earth’s thick inner atmosphere. The pod then flashed its thrusters again to orient itself as it began its re-entry. This move began to slow the spacecraft from its orbital speed of about 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour). A heat shield protected the astronauts as the fiery dive back to Earth heated the spacecraft’s exterior to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius).
A plume of parachutes then further slowed its descent before making a water landing off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla. just before 5 p.m. ET.
The crew was originally scheduled to leave the space station on Wednesday evening, but ground crews waved them off bad weather. Storms also destroyed a second attempt at return on Thursday morning.
This mission, dubbed Crew-4, was a historic first as Watkins became the first black woman to join the space station crew for an extended stay.
During their stay, the astronauts conducted scientific experiments, including studying how to grow vegetables in space without Earth and studying the effects of space travel on the human body.
These experiments are designed to help astronauts understand how they might one day grow their own food and how their bodies might respond to missions deeper into space, such as NASA’s planned Artemis lunar missions, Watkins said during a news conference last week.
“It was great to be able to enter the Columbus module and smell the scent of growing leaves and plants,” Watkins told reporters.
Cristoforetti, who was on a previous mission to the Space Station in 2014-2015, is the only woman in ESA’s astronaut corps and she made her own story on that mission. Last month, she became the first European to take command of the space station.
Cristoforetti also conducted a spacewalk to the deployment in July small satellites and work on installing a new robotic arm on the outside of the space station.