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The Endurance crew, which began its stay in orbit on 11 November, consisted of American spaceflight veteran Tom Marshburn, 61, and three first-time astronauts - NASA's Raja Chari, 44, and Kayla Barron, 34, and their ESA colleague Matthias Maurer, 52.

Camera shots from inside the crew compartment showed the astronauts strapped into their seats, garbed in helmeted white-and-black spacesuits.

It was expected to take splashdown-response teams about an hour to reach the capsule bobbing in the water, hoist it onto the deck of a recovery vessel and open the hatch to let the astronauts out for their first breath of fresh air in nearly six months.

The return from orbit followed a fiery re-entry plunge through Earth's atmosphere generating frictional heat that sent temperatures outside the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,930 degrees Celsius).

Two sets of parachutes billowed open above the capsule in the final stage of descent, slowing its fall to about 15 miles per hour (24 kph) before the craft hit the water off the coast of Tampa, Florida.

Applause from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles was heard over the Webcast, which showed infrared images of the capsule on its final descent.

The newly returned astronauts were officially designated as NASA's "Commercial Crew 3," the third full-fledged, long-duration team of four that SpaceX has flown to the space station under contract for the U.S. space agency.

SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc TSLA.O who recently clinched a deal to buy Twitter TWTR.N, supplies the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules now flying NASA astronauts to orbit from U.S. soil.

The company also controls those flights and handles the splashdown recoveries, while NASA furnishes the crews and launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and manages U.S. space station operations.

Microgravity Cotton & Combustion

California-based SpaceX has launched seven human spaceflights in all over the past two years - five for NASA and two for private ventures - as well as dozens of cargo and satellite payload missions since 2012.

Crew 3 returned to Earth with some 550 pounds (250 kg) of cargo, including loads of ISS research samples.

Aside from carrying out routine maintenance while in orbit some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, the astronauts contributed to hundreds of science experiments and technology demonstrations.

Highlights included studies of the genetic expression in cotton cells cultured in space, gaseous flame combustion in microgravity and the DNA sequences of bacteria inside the station. Crew members also tested new robot devices, harvested chili peppers grown in orbit and conducted experiments in space physics and materials science.

Barron and Chari performed a spacewalk to prepare the station for another in a series of new light-weight roll-out solar arrays, to be used eventually on the planned Gateway outpost that will orbit the moon.

Crew 3's return comes about a week after they welcomed their replacement team, Crew 4, aboard the space station. One of the three Russian cosmonauts also now inhabiting the station, Oleg Artemyev, assumed command of the ISS from Marshburn in a handover before Endurance departed early Thursday.

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