US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon as part of the first commercial trip to orbit, splashed down in the capsule in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
The pair’s two-month voyage was Nasa’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years. The Crew Dragon capsule was built and run by SpaceX, the private rocket company started by Elon Musk.
Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley left the International Space Station on Saturday and landed in the waves off Florida’s Pensacola coast on schedule at 2.48pm ET following a 21-hour journey aboard Crew Dragon Endeavor.
The successful splashdown was a final key test of whether Mr Musk’s spacecraft can transport astronauts to and from orbit – a feat no private company has ever accomplished before. “On behalf of the SpaceX and Nasa teams, welcome back to planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX mission control said upon splashdown.
For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked autonomously to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley’s speed of about 28,000km/h in orbit down to 563km/h upon atmospheric re-entry, and eventually 24km/h at splashdown.
During re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 1,927 degrees Celsius, while Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley, wearing SpaceX’s white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, experienced 29 degrees.
The crew were to spend up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and Nasa retrieve them for a helicopter trip ashore. There the duo will undergo medical checks ahead of a flight to Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley’s homecoming was also the first crewed splashdown in an American capsule in 45 years.
The astronauts had set off for the space station on May 31st.
The Crew Dragon undocked from the space station at 7.35pm EDT on Saturday, with brief thruster firings pushing the spacecraft back.
As the capsule backed away from the station, Mr Hurley thanked the current crew of the space station and the teams on the ground that helped manage their mission. “We look forward to splashdown tomorrow,” he said.
The safe return could open up more trips to and from orbit for future astronaut crews, and possibly space tourists, aboard the spacecraft.
The landing was complicated by Storm Isaias sweeping up along the Atlantic coast of Florida over the weekend. Nasa and SpaceX have seven splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, but the track of the storm ruled out the three in the Atlantic. – Reuters/New York Times