NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule, capping historic mission

SpaceX Dragon capsule
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is hoisted onto its recovery ship with the astronauts inside, while a gaggle of private vessels gawk around the perimeter of the landing zone in the Gulf of Mexico. (NASA via YouTube)

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Welcome back to Planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mission Control told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

NASA and SpaceX chose a site off the coast of Pensacola on Florida’s Panhandle, rather than more easterly candidates, to stay far away from the track of Tropical Storm Isaias along Florida’s East Coast.

The storm wasn’t the only hazard that Hurley and Behnken faced: They had to rely on Endeavour’s thruster system to fire successfully for the descent from orbit, on its heatshield to protect them from the 3,500-degree Fahrenheit heat of atmospheric re-entry, and on its parachutes to make a safe landing amid the glassy Gulf waters.

A live video stream, watched online by more than half a million people, showed the four red-and-white main parachutes opening and the gumdrop-shaped spaceship hitting the water at 2:48 p.m. ET (11:48 a.m. PT).

About half an hour after the splashdown, Endeavour was hoisted aboard a ship called the Go Navigator with a crane. A smattering of private vessels sailed through the landing zone, complicating the recovery effort.

Once the Dragon was on board, workers checked chemical readings to make sure the astronauts wouldn’t be exposed to toxic fuel residues when they emerged through the hatch. Flight surgeons were on hand to help with the astronauts’ readjustment to Earth’s gravity after two months in zero-G. “We’re doing pretty good so far,” Hurley told Mission Control as he and Behnken waited for extraction.

After an initial check on Go Navigator, Hurley and Behnken will be taken to shore by helicopter, then flown back to their home base in Houston.

Before leaving the station, both astronauts said they were most looking forward to reuniting with their families. And to whet their appetite for the reunion, today’s wakeup call came in the form of messages from their children. “Don’t worry, you can sleep in tomorrow,” Behnken’s 6-year-old son, Theo, told his dad.

The primary goal of this flight was to put the Dragon through its paces as a crewed spaceship, and by all accounts, it.passed all of its tests with flying colors.

For years, SpaceX worked under the terms of a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA to upgrade the Dragon capsule to carry astronauts safely to and from the space station. Boeing has a similar deal, but due to technical snags, its Starliner space taxi isn’t expected to be ready to carry crew until next year.

Dragon and Starliner are meant to fill a gap in crewed spaceflight capability left by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. In the interim, NASA had to pay the Russians as much as $80 million per seat to send U.S. astronauts on Soyuz capsules.

During their space station stay, Hurley and Behnken assisted the outpost’s three other crew members — NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka and Ivan Vagner — with maintenance chores and science experiments. Behnken pitched in on four spacewalks with Cassidy to upgrade the station’s power system.

The next crewed SpaceX Dragon trip to the station is due for launch as soon as next month — and Behnken’s wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, is on yet another Dragon crew heading for the station next spring. The same spacecraft that Behnken rode is destined to be refurbished for that flight.

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