• Kyodo, Jiji

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A U.S. SpaceX ship carrying Japan's Soichi Noguchi and three American astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday following the group's six-month mission at the International Space Station.

The three Americans are Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, all from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The Crew Dragon capsule splashed down at 2:56 a.m. in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, the first time a manned U.S. craft has reached Earth under darkness since the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

It was launched in November from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the second manned flight to the ISS by the commercially built spacecraft.

The four astronauts were initially planning to return in late April but their departure was pushed back due to unfavorable weather conditions.

The crew members later exited the capsule one by one and Noguchi was the last to do so.

While the four were on the ISS, another SpaceX ship ferried Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and three other astronauts to the orbiting laboratory, putting two Japanese astronauts in space simultaneously for the first time since 2010.

SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., was founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk and developed the Crew Dragon as a successor to NASA's costly Space Shuttle transportation system that was in service for 30 years through 2011.

Noguchi, a 56-year-old veteran astronaut, became the first person to fly on each of the Space Shuttle, a Russian Soyuz craft and the Crew Dragon. He was also the first non-American astronaut to board the Crew Dragon.

He performed the fourth spacewalk of his career, the highest number for a Japanese astronaut.

During his mission aboard the space station, Noguchi posted about 80 videos on YouTube showing his daily life, meals, experiments and spacewalks. A video posted on Sunday, his final day in orbit, showed him playing Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No. 3 on the keyboard.

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