NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and have emerged from the cabin, stepping foot on Earth the first time in 63 days.
‘Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,’ said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters.
The spacefairing heroes will be flown in a helicopter to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where they will be shuttled to Johnson Space Center in Houston – NASA’s official home base for astronauts.
Hurley and Behnke began their journey when they took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station on May 30 – the first time in nine years an American crew launched from US soil.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station Saturday with two US astronauts on board, beginning their 19-hour journey back to Earth despite a storm threatening the return.
On entering the atmosphere, the Crew Dragon faced scorching temperatures of around 3,450 degrees Fahrenheit as the craft deployed four red and white parachutes to slow its speed down from over 400 miles per hour to 15 miles per hour, before safely landing on the ocean.
This is the first water landing by NASA since 1975, when crews were still using the Apollo rockets from the American moon missions.
More than an hour after splashdown, the astronauts emerged from their capsule on the deck of a recovery ship, both signaling a thumbs-up as they headed for medical exams.
The ride home in the capsule dubbed Endeavour was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside.
The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric reentry, and finally to 15 mph (24 kph) at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew was four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.
Within a half-hour of splashdown, the scorched and blistered 15-foot capsule was on board a SpaceX recovery ship with a staff of more than 40, including doctors and nurses.
To keep the returning astronauts safe during 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 exams, the astronauts were expected to fly to Houston for a reunion with their wives and sons.
Hurley offered final thanks just before he exited the capsule. ‘Anybody who’s touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to just cherish the day, especially given all the things that have happened this year.’
Hurley and Behnken spent a total of 63 days on the ISS in Earth orbit, participating in research and space walks on the massive station.
The splashdown followed the capsules deorbit, which began 1:56pm ET.
Dragon sent a number of signals to the NASA team to keep them informed of the steps as the traveled over the Indian Ocean.
The deorbit burn is the longest use of the thrusters during the entire trip home for the astronauts, which lasts for more than 11 minutes.
And Dragon operated autonomously, leaving Hurley and Behnken tasked with keeping tabs on the trajectory., along with a number of data points.
At this time, the capsule also switches to battery power to control the movements and deploys the heat shields to protect itself and the astronauts inside.
The astronauts were initially set to land in the Atlantic Ocean, but due to the threat of Tropical Storm Isaias, SpaceX shifted the target to the Gulf of Mexico.
The weather on Sunday, however, was optimal for a splashdown – blue skies and a few puffy, white clouds.
NASA footage showed the capsule drifting slowly away from the ISS in the darkness of space Saturday, closing out two months aboard for the first US astronauts to reach the orbiting lab on an American spacecraft in nearly a decade.
‘And they are off!’ the US space agency tweeted.
NASA later added the capsule was confirmed to be ‘on a safe trajectory.’
‘It’s been a great two months, and we appreciate all you’ve done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight,’ Hurley told the remaining US station crew member Chris Cassidy, as Crew Dragon autonomously eased away from its docking port to begin the 21-hour journey home.
NASA opted to go ahead with bringing the pair home despite the threat of Isaias, which was downgraded to a tropical storm from a hurricane on Saturday.
‘Now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase after we undock, hopefully a little bit later today,’ Hurley said in a farewell ceremony aboard the ISS that was broadcast on NASA TV.
The splashdown was the final step in the mission designed to test SpaceX’s human spaceflight system – including launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.
The last time astronauts made an ocean landing was on July 1975 during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, a joint mission with the Soviet Union where a US Apollo module docked with a Russian Soyuz one in orbit.
During the ISS ceremony on Saturday, Behnken said that ‘the hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part is bringing us home.’
Addressing his son and Hurley’s son, he held up a toy dinosaur that the children chose to send on the mission and said: ‘Tremor The Apatosaurus is headed home soon and he’ll be with your dads.’
Behnken later tweeted: ‘All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.’
Mission chief Chris Cassidy called it an ‘exciting day’ and hailed the importance of having a new means to transport astronauts.
The mission, which blasted off May 30, marked the first time a crewed spaceship had launched into orbit from American soil since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.
It was also the first time a private company has flown to the ISS carrying astronauts.
For SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the mission represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and frequent.
And it would mark the first time that commercially developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – have carried Americans into orbit.
The American space agency paid SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing a total of about $7 billion for their ‘space taxi’ contracts.
But Boeing’s program has floundered badly after a failed test run late last year, which left SpaceX, a company founded only in 2002, as clear frontrunner.
For the past nine years, US astronauts traveled exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets, for a price of around $80 million per seat.
Hurley and Behnken took off from Launch Complex 39A two months ago for ‘Launch America.’
The mission was originally set for May 27, but was aborted with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock due to bad weather.