It has been decades since the world watched a US space capsule touch down in the waters off the coast of Florida — the first in 45 years, in fact.
Thankfully, four big chutes opened as planned and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley — splashed down into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, CNN reported.
More importantly, it marked a safe end to an historic two-month mission, paving the way for the United States to once again become a world leader in human spaceflight.
The Crew Dragon vehicle fired up its engines and safely plunged back through the Earth’s thick atmosphere on Sunday afternoon for its target landing off the coast of Florida. Mission control dispatched a humorous welcome to the astronauts: “Thank you for flying SpaceX.”
According to CTV News, 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.
Following the recovery, the astronauts will board a NASA plane that will shuttle them to Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA’s official home base for astronauts, CNN reported.
The journey was made more dramatic by a two-day standoff with mother nature: Tropical Storm Isaias was barreling toward the east coast. But waters in the Gulf of Mexico remained calm enough for the astronauts’ capsule to splash down near Pensacola.
A giant recovery ship, GO Navigator, met the Crew Dragon spacecraft and successfully hauled it out of the water. Medics are on site for any emergencies, and Hurley and Behnken will be whisked by helicopter to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, CNN reported.
To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew quarantined for two weeks and were tested for the coronavirus, CTV News reported.
Their mission was technically considered a test flight, but Hurley and Behnken’s safe return paves the way for NASA to officially certify Crew Dragon as a human-rated spacecraft.
That queues up the vehicle to begin flying regular trips to the ISS, allowing NASA to take more control over US operations on the giant orbiting laboratory after years of relying on Russian spacecraft to fly crew, at US$90 million a go, CNN reported.
Another Crew Dragon spacecraft is already preparing to launch another mission, dubbed Crew-1, that will carry four more astronauts to the space station: NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi.
SpaceX also plans to refurbish Hurley and Behnken’s spacecraft, which is nicknamed Endeavour, to fly on another crewed mission in the spring of 2021, CNN reported.
That trip will include Megan McArthur — Behnken’s wife and fellow astronaut — along with NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide with Japan’s JAXA space agency and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
NASA has been working to returning human spaceflight to US soil for nearly a decade: It lost that capability after retiring the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
And at the time, few people at NASA expected Elon Musk’s scrappy rocket startup would be the organization that brought crewed launches back to US soil, CNN reported.
NASA’s decision not to create its own replacement for the Shuttle — but to contract that task out to commercial companies — was hugely controversial for the administration of President Barack Obama.
The program, called Commercial Crew, sought to spur innovation and encouraged corporations to compete to bring down costs, CNN reported.
In 2014 NASA awarded two contracts: US$4.2 billion to Boeing to build its Starliner vehicle, and US$2.6 billion to SpaceX, which planned to create a crew worthy version of the Dragon spacecraft that was already flying cargo to and from the International Space Station.
NASA had repeatedly signaled that it expected Boeing to beat SpaceX to the launch pad. That changed after SpaceX soared through the final tests of its Crew Dragon capsule and readied for its historic launch in May.
SpaceX’s success is a major win for NASA, which has been pushing for more commercial partnerships and can use this program’s success as evidence that it’s an effective contracting method.
According to media reports, the only wrinkle noted during post-splashdown operations was the unexpected arrival of several privately owned boats, which encircled Crew Dragon to try and get an up-close view.
The presence of unauthorized boats can not only be dangerous for returning astronauts, but for the boaters themselves as spacecraft vent toxic propellants used in space.
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 US-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz.