SpaceX astronauts return to Earth after first private space flight

NASA completed a triumphant return to U.S. space travel as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule plopped into the Gulf of Mexico with two astronauts, successfully concluding the company’s first crewed test flight to the International Space Station.

The spacecraft splashed down at about 2:48 p.m. Eastern time Sunday near Pensacola, Florida. A SpaceX vessel hoisted the vehicle carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onto its deck less than an hour after their arrival.

The hatch opened at 3:59 p.m. and the astronauts emerged a short time later from their demonstration mission.

“Today we really made history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a news conference with SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and the four astronauts who will fly aboard the first regular flight to the space station later this year. “We are entering a new era of human spaceflight.”

“This is really just the beginning,” Shotwell said. “We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low-earth orbit.”

The return of Behnken and Hurley capped the first mission in which U.S. astronauts flew to the station on an American spacecraft since NASA’s shuttle program ended in 2011.

The highly anticipated flight also provided an inspiration for a nation grappling with a pandemic, civil unrest and a tattered economy. The astronauts launched for the space station on May 30 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

After collecting the capsule, SpaceX staff encountered residual fuel vapors on the Dragon, which delayed progress on helping Behnken and Hurley to exit.

The company targets having crew members out of the Dragon within an hour of splashdown.

Shotwell said SpaceX personnel will begin purging those vapors sooner on future Dragon arrivals, even though levels Sunday were within acceptable limits.

Spectator Boats

NASA and SpaceX also plan to impose a tighter exclusion area on future Dragon splashdowns after multiple private boats sailed close to the capsule after it landed.

The Coast Guard helped to clear a zone of 10 nautical miles in the Gulf of Mexico for the Dragon. But neither the military or SpaceX had enough personnel to keep private craft away, and officials cautioned that toxic fumes are a hazard.

“We probably need more Coast Guard assets and possibly some more NASA and SpaceX assets as well,” Shotwell said. “This is the time you learn about these things.”

Behnken and Hurley initiated a burn at 1:56 p.m. Sunday to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, with the capsule undergoing exterior temperatures of as much as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius) as it encountered the atmosphere. The Dragon splashed down less than an hour later.

The astronauts’ safe return gives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a proven commercial vehicle to transport personnel to and from the space station.

Boeing Co. is developing a second spacecraft for NASA’s commercial crew program, the CST-100 Starliner, although the project has been beset by delays and a botched test flight last year with no astronauts aboard.

The Dragon’s flight is also a successful milestone in the agency’s efforts to commercialize the space economy and become a mere customer for private enterprises’ products and services as it works to return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Bridenstine also used the mission’s successful conclusion to lobby for additional funds from Congress for NASA’s Artemis program, which has been tasked by the Trump administration of returning astronauts to the moon in 2024.

For SpaceX, the flight is a signature achievement 18 years after Musk founded the company with the ultimate goal of populating other planets.

The mission also cements SpaceX’s spot as the most valuable firm in the “New Space” industry and is likely to aid future fundraising efforts, which have recently included discussions of a deal that would value SpaceX at $44 billion.

Congratulations poured in from President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Boeing and Blue Origin, the rocket maker backed by Inc. founder Jeff Bezos.

NASA has tentatively scheduled the Dragon’s next flight for late September, pending thorough reviews of data collected from the latest operation. Formal certification will occur after those reviews and a deep inspection of the capsule, said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew manager.

The next mission will carry three NASA astronauts and one from JAXA, Japan’s space agency. A second Dragon flight will launch in early 2021, with NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, Behnken’s wife, serving as pilot.

The ocean landing comes after a 45-year hiatus and harks back to NASA’s Apollo program, which saw astronauts splash into the Pacific Ocean with retrieval by ships.

The last U.S. space return by sea was the joint Apollo-Soyuz docking mission, which ended with the Apollo capsule’s return in July 1975, northwest of Hawaii.

NASA plans an Aug. 4 news conference with Behnken and Hurley at Johnson Space Center.

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SpaceX astronauts return to Earth after first private space flight