- NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley just completed a test flight of SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship.
- The Crew Dragon survived a fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, deployed its parachutes, and landed in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday — a process that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called his “biggest concern” for the mission.
- Watch the reentry and landing of the world’s first crewed commercial spaceship in the video below.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
SpaceX and NASA just accomplished a historic feat: the first-ever crewed commercial spaceflight mission.
After a high-risk, fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, the Crew Dragon spaceship successfully deployed four parachutes to land in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, of the coast of Pensacola, Florida.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched aboard the SpaceX-designed Crew Dragon two months prior, on May 30. The capsule then docked to the International Space Station, where it remained while Behnken and Hurley conducted experiments and spacewalks aboard the orbiting laboratory.
The mission, called Demo-2, was a test to show that SpaceX is capable of taking astronauts to and from Earth’s orbit.
The launch went according to plan, but Sunday’s landing was the mission’s defining moment.
From space, the Crew Dragon had to plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, its heat shield deflecting and absorbing the energy of superheated plasma and enduring temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The shield successfully protected the hardware and astronauts as they fell at 25 times the speed of sound.
Then came two parachute deployments. The first, at about 18,000 feet, slowed Crew Dragon’s plummet from 350 mph to 119 mph. Then at about 6,000 feet, more parachutes deployed to carry the capsule gently into the ocean.
“I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a NASA TV broadcast after the landing.
SpaceX filmed the capsule as it descended to Earth. The resulting video, below, condenses the 12-minute reentry and landing process into 1 minute and 11 seconds.
‘It seemed to go extremely smoothly’
Demo-2 was the culmination of roughly $3.1 billion in funding that SpaceX got from NASA through the agency’s Commercial Crew Program — an effort to resurrect the human-spaceflight capability that NASA lost after it retired its space shuttles in 2011.
The successful demonstration flight tees up six round-trips on Crew Dragon that NASA has contracted to fly its astronauts to and from the space station.
Ahead of the astronauts’ May launch, Musk told Aviation Week’s Irene Klotz that the mission’s final stages were his biggest concern.
That’s because of the Crew Dragon’s asymmetric design, which is necessary for the emergency escape system that can jettison the capsule away from a failing rocket. Musk was concerned that the asymmetry could have caused the capsule to rotate too much, leading it to “catch the plasma in the super Draco escape thruster pods,” he told Klotz. But the process went smoothly.
The parachutes were also cause for concern. During a briefing before the launch, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, was asked what kept him up at night in regard to the Demo-2 mission. He pointed to the chutes, since their packing can’t be tested until they’re deployed.
But after the landing, officials and astronauts remarked on how uneventful the astronaut’s return flight was (except for a few surprises on the ground, such as civilian boats pulling up to the space capsule).
“It did not seem like this was the first NASA SpaceX mission with astronauts on board,” Michael Hopkins, a NASA astronaut who’s slated to fly on SpaceX’s next mission, Crew-1, said. “It seemed to go extremely smoothly.”
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and CEO, said even SpaceX leadership was a bit taken aback.
“I think we’re surprised — minorly surprised, but obviously incredibly pleased — that this went as smoothly as it did,” she said.
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