NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley safely splashed down in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule off the Florida coast on Sunday after a two-month stay on the International Space Station. The two men made history earlier this summer when they became the first NASA astronauts to catch a ride to orbit on a private spacecraft as part of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. It was a test flight to show NASA that the capsule is safe enough to fly humans, so the return of the astronauts concludes that mission.
“We completed all the objectives for the mission while we were docked and figured out if crew could live in Dragon,” Steve Stich, the program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Now is the right time to bring this vehicle back.”
Behnken and Hurley landed under parachute in the Atlantic Ocean near Pensacola, Florida, one of seven landing sites pre-selected by NASA and SpaceX. They sheltered in the capsule until they were pulled from the water by Go Navigator, a ship operated by SpaceX. It was the first ocean recovery of a crewed spacecraft in 45 years. The last one was after the famous orbital rendezvous between the US and Soviet Union in 1975; since then, all crewed landings have been on terra firma (aside from one accidental lake landing by the Russians).
The Demo-2 splashdown marked the end of a long day for Behnken and Hurley, who spent nearly 20 hours in the capsule before they arrived back on Earth. After it left the ISS, the capsule autonomously executed a few short engine burns to put the spacecraft on a trajectory that would align it with its landing sites. Behnken and Hurley spent the next few hours drifting in orbit while NASA and SpaceX monitored weather conditions at the possible landing sites along the Florida coast. At least two of the sites had to be clear—so no rain, lightning, big waves, or strong winds—before the capsule could execute its final deorbit burn that would bring it down to Earth.
SpaceX mission control made the final decision to deorbit just an hour before Behnken and Hurley landed in the ocean. In the event that they decided to postpone the deorbit burn due to weather, the duo had enough air, water, and food for up to three days in the capsule. But once the decision was made to bring the astronauts back home it was a quick—and extreme—jaunt back to Earth.
During the descent, the capsule’s heat shield experienced temperatures above 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as it used the atmosphere as a brake to reduce its speed from 17,000 to just 350 miles per hour. Once the capsule was about three miles above the surface—half the cruising altitude of a passenger jet—it deployed its small drogue parachutes as additional brakes. When it was only a mile above the waves, the capsule deployed its main chutes and drifted lazily to the surface.
“After splashdown, what I think of as the ‘SpaceX Navy’ go in and recover the crew,” Benji Reed, the director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during a press conference last week. SpaceX deployed two boats—Go Navigator in the Gulf of Mexico and Go Searcher off the eastern coast of Florida—to lead the recovery effort; each boat is staffed with more than 40 crew members from SpaceX and NASA.
Once Behnken and Hurley are safely onboard Go Naviator, they will be subjected to a thorough medical screening. Within four hours of splashdown, a helicopter will drop them off at Kennedy Space Center where they’ll board a plane to fly to NASA’s astronaut headquarters at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As for the capsule itself, it will be restored at a SpaceX facility in Florida and used again for another crewed mission next spring. “We should be able to have Dragon refurbished and ready to go in just a matter of a couple months,” Reed said. “Almost all of the vehicle is totally reused and is designed for at least five reuses, possibly even more.”
Behnken and Hurley are now the newest members of an exclusive club of just seven astronauts who have ever test piloted a new spacecraft. And once NASA has had a chance to review the data from the Demo-2 flight, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is expected to become only the fifth American—and first commercial—spacecraft to ever be certified for human spaceflight. It’s a big deal, but NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is just getting started.
Assuming that everything checks out from the Demo-2 mission, SpaceX is expected to begin regularly shuttling astronauts to and from the space station as early as September. “The important thing after landing will be to review all the data from this flight,” Stich said during a press conference last week. “We’ll go through that data methodically and make sure we’re ready to start operational flights.”
The Crew-1 mission, SpaceX’s first operational mission with people on board, will carry four astronauts: Japan’s Soichi Noguchi and NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker. While Behnken and Hurley’s time on the ISS was limited to a maximum of four months due to concerns about the reliability of the Crew Dragon’s solar panels, the next batch of astronauts should be able to spend about 6 months in orbit because of upgraded panels.
But SpaceX isn’t the only company that will be giving astronauts a lift to space in the future. Boeing, too, is working on a capsule for NASA’s commercial crew program. But the beleaguered company has faced a number of setbacks. Late last year, Boeing mission control had to abort an uncrewed test flight to the ISS after a software issue prevented it from executing an engine burn that would have put it on the correct orbital trajectory to dock with the space station. Although the capsule returned to Earth unscathed, the company plans to conduct another uncrewed flight demo before it does a test with humans on board.
The safe return of Behnken and Hurley is a major milestone in the commercialization of NASA’s crewed space exploration program. Human spaceflight was once the sole domain of the world’s most powerful countries. Now SpaceX has proven that it’s possible for a private company to send people to space—and bring them back home.
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