SpaceX capsule and NASA crew make 1st splashdown in 45 years

This photo provided by NASA shows from left, astronauts Bob Behnken, Chris Cassidy and Doug Hurley during an interview on the International Space Station on Friday, July 31, 2020. Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to leave the International Space Station in a SpaceX capsule on Saturday and splashdown off the coast of Florida on Sunday. (NASA via AP)This photo provided by NASA shows from left, astronauts Bob Behnken, Chris Cassidy and Doug Hurley during an interview on the International Space Station on Friday, July 31, 2020. Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to leave the International Space Station in a SpaceX capsule on Saturday and splashdown off the coast of Florida on Sunday. (NASA via AP)
In this image from video made available by NASA, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule separates from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)In this image from video made available by NASA, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule separates from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)
This image from video made available by NASA shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, left, before it undocks from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)This image from video made available by NASA shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, left, before it undocks from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)
NASA Chief Astronaut Pat Forrester, left, and NASA astronaut and Crew Recovery Chief Shane Kimbrough, along with other NASA and SpaceX support teams onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship, prepare for the landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)NASA Chief Astronaut Pat Forrester, left, and NASA astronaut and Crew Recovery Chief Shane Kimbrough, along with other NASA and SpaceX support teams onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship, prepare for the landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, their capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to close out an unprecedented test flight by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The return clears the way for another SpaceX crew launch as early as next month and possible tourist flights next year.

Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken arrived back on Earth in their SpaceX Dragon capsule named Endeavour, less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida. The capsule parachuted into the calm gulf waters about 40 miles off the coast of Pensacola, hundreds of miles from Tropical Storm Isaias pounding Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming to see everybody here considering the things that have gone on the last few months since we’ve been off planet,” Hurley said after arriving back home in Houston Sunday evening where they were greeted by a small masked-gathering of family and officials, including Musk.

Musk had rushed to Houston from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to welcome them. He was clearly moved — and relieved — while addressing the group.

“I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one,” he said.

The astronauts’ ride back to Earth was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside.

The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph (28,000 kph) to 350 mph (560 kph) during atmospheric reentry, and finally to 15 mph (24 kph) at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius). The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew: four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the scorched and blistered 16-foot capsule was hoisted aboard a SpaceX recovery ship with a staff of more than 40, including doctors and nurses. To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew quarantined for two weeks and were tested for the coronavirus.

The opening of the hatch was held up briefly by extra checks for toxic rocket fumes outside the capsule. After medical checkups, the astronauts were flown by helicopter to Pensacola and then to Houston.

There was one unexpected problem that could have endangered the operation: Once the capsule was in the water, private boats “just made a beeline for it,” and got too close, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, promising to do better next time at keeping sightseers on pleasure boats safely away. NASA video showed one vessel flying a large campaign flag for President Donald Trump.

The Coast Guard in Pensacola said it had deployed two vessels to keep the public at least 10 miles away from the capsule.

Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, who both attended the launch, congratulated the SpaceX and NASA teams.

“Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!” Trump tweeted.

ALSO READ: Alleged impaired driver sparks small wildfire near Lytton after crash

The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific, the scene of most splashdowns, to end a joint U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz. The Mercury and Gemini crews in the early to mid-1960s parachuted into the Atlantic, while most of the later Apollo capsules hit the Pacific. The lone Russian “splashdown” was in 1976 on a partially frozen lake amid a blizzard following an aborted mission; the harrowing recovery took hours.

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford — the commander of the last crew to splash down — watched the reentry on TV from his Florida home. While pleased with the crew’s safe return, he wasn’t overly impressed. “It’s what we did over 50 years ago,” he said.

Its throwback splashdown aside, SpaceX made history with the mission, which launched May 30 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was the first time a private company launched people into orbit and also the first launch of NASA astronauts from home turf in nearly a decade. Hurley was the pilot of NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.

NASA turned to SpaceX and also Boeing to build capsules and ferry astronauts to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttles. Until Hurley and Behnken rocketed into orbit, NASA astronauts relied on Russian rockets. SpaceX already had experience hauling cargo to the space station, bringing those capsules back to a Pacific splashdown.

“We are entering a new era of human spaceflight where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware. We’re going to be a customer, one customer of many,” Bridenstine said from Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I would love to see a fleet of crew Dragons servicing not just the International Space Station but also commercial space stations.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell called the mission a springboard to “doing even harder things,” like collaborating on astronaut flights to the moon and then Mars.

“There’s no question, it was an enormous relief after months of anxiety making sure we could bring Bob and Doug back home safely,” Shotwell said.

SpaceX needs six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew around the end of September. This next mission of four astronauts will spend a full six months aboard the space station. Hurley and Behnken’s capsule will be refurbished for another flight next spring. A Houston company run by a former NASA official, meanwhile, has partnered with SpaceX to send three customers to the space station in fall 2021.

“It took years to get here, we brought the capablity back to America, and we came home safely to our families, and it took a lot of people a lot of time to make that happen,” Behnken said back in Houston.

Boeing doesn’t expect to launch its first crew until next year. The company encountered significant software problems in the debut of its Starliner capsule, with no one aboard, last year. Its capsules will touch down in the U.S. Southwest desert.

By beating Boeing, SpaceX laid claim to a small U.S. flag left at the space station by Hurley and the rest of the last shuttle crew. Minutes after splashdown, Musk tweeted a flag emoji followed by “returned.”

Also on board: a toy dinosaur named Tremor, sent into space by the astronauts’ young sons. The two boys recorded a wake-up call for their fathers Sunday morning.

“Don’t worry, you can sleep in tomorrow,” said Behnken’s 6-year-old son Theo, who was promised a puppy after the flight. “Hurry home so we can go get my dog.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Aviation and space

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: Town of Smithers lifts alert for high levels of chlorine in water

Residents are advised town water is now safe to use

Garry Merkel has been recognized for his work in culturally appropriate Indigenous education with an honourary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.
Tahltan educator recognized with honorary doctorate from UBC

Garry Merkel has dedicated his life to improving Indigenous educational outcomes

Gareth Manderson, general manager BC Works, and Bandstra’s Zach Runions and Steve Collins. Photo supplied
Smithers family-owned business institution sold to publicly-traded company

Bandstra Transportation and Babine Trucking acquired by Mullen Group

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

MLA Shirley Bond, right, answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on February 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Former B.C. gaming minister says she wasn’t told directly about dirty cash flowing to casinos

Shirley Bond said Thursday civil forfeiture, gang violence and gambling addiction were also major concerns in 2011

RCMP Constable Etsell speaks to tourists leaving the area at a police roadblock on Westside Road south of Fintry, B.C., Thursday, July 23, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Yvonne Berg
B.C. police say they take ‘exception’ to conducting roadblocks limiting travel

Asking the police to enforce roadblocks exposes officers to further risk and possible COVID-19 infections, says federation president Brian Sauve

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

As part of the province’s strategy to combat the opioid overdose crisis, take-home naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the province. (Courtesy of Gaëlle Nicolussi)
Vancouver Island could be at its worst point of overdose crises yet: medical health officer

Island Health issued overdose advisories for Victoria, various communities in the last two weeks

BC Hydro released a survey Thursday, April 22. It found that many British Columbians are unintentionally contributing to climate change with their yard maintenance choices. (Pixabay)
Spend a lot of time doing yard work? It might be contributing to climate change

Recent BC Hydro survey finds 60% of homeowners still use gas-powered lawnmowers and yard equipment

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Nanaimo RCMP say a man was injured while pouring gunpowder on a backyard fire in Harewood on Wednesday, April 21. (File photo)
Nanaimo man hospitalized after pouring gunpowder onto backyard fire

RCMP investigating explosion in Harewood also came across a still for making alcohol on property

Most Read