Space crew splashdown 1st in 45 years

  • In this frame grab from NASA TV, the SpaceX capsule is lifted onto a ship, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first time a private company has ferried people from orbit. (NASA TV via AP)

  • In this frame grab from NASA TV, astronaut Bob Behnken is assisted out of the SpaceX capsule, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first time a private company has ferried people from orbit. (NASA TV via AP)

  • In this frame grab from NASA TV, the SpaceX capsule floats, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first time a private company has ferried people from orbit. (NASA TV via AP)

  • In this frame grab from NASA TV, the SpaceX capsule splashes down Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first time a private company has ferried people from orbit. (NASA TV via AP) (NASA TV via AP)

  • A NASA recovery team approaches the SpaceX capsule with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken after splashing down, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. Hurley and Behnken worked two months at the International Space Station. (NASA TV via AP)

  • In this frame grab from NASA TV, the SpaceX capsule splashes down Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first time a private company has ferried people from orbit. (NASA TV via AP)

  • Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken prepare to return to earth on a SpaceX capsule, Sunday Aug. 2, 2020. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first return in the gulf. Unlike Florida's Atlantic coast, already feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaias, the waves and wind were calm near Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle. (SpaceX via AP)

  • SpaceX support teams are deployed on fast boats from the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship ahead of the landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. The Demo-2 test flight for NASA's Commercial Crew Program is the first to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and return them to Earth onboard a commercially built and... NASA/Bill Ingalls

  • NASA astronaut and Crew Recovery Chief Shane Kimbrough, left, and NASA Chief Astronaut Pat Forrester watch as SpaceX support teams are deployed on fast boats from the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship ahead of the landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP) NASA/Bill Ingalls

  • NASA Chief Astronaut Pat Forrester, left, and NASA astronaut and Crew Recovery Chief Shane Kimbrough, along with other NASA and SpaceX support teams onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship, prepare for the landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP) NASA/Bill Ingalls

  • In this image from video made available by NASA, astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken prepare for undocking from the International Space Station, aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)

  • In this image from video made available by NASA, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule separates from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)

  • This image from video made available by NASA shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, left, before it undocks from the International Space Station on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)

  • This photo provided by NASA shows from left, astronauts Bob Behnken, Chris Cassidy and Doug Hurley during an interview on the International Space Station on Friday, July 31, 2020. Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to leave the International Space Station in a SpaceX capsule on Saturday and splashdown off the coast of Florida on Sunday. (NASA via AP)

  • FILE- In this May, 30, 2020 file photo, NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken walk out of the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building on their way to Pad 39-A, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Behnken and Hurley riding the Dragon SpaceX capsule are headed toward a splashdown Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in the Gulf of Mexico to close out their two-month test flight. It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first... John Raoux

Associated Press
Published: 8/2/2020 5:42:16 PM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, their capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to close out an unprecedented test flight by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The return clears the way for another SpaceX crew launch as early as next month and possible tourist flights next year.

Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode the SpaceX Dragon capsule back to Earth less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida. The capsule parachuted into the calm gulf waters about 40 miles off the coast of Pensacola, hundreds of miles from Tropical Storm Isaias pounding Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters.

“It was truly our honor and privilege,” replied Hurley.

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.

Their 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 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.

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 in 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 home 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.”

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 U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz. The Mercury and Gemini crews in the early to mid-1960s parachuted into the Atlantic, while most of the later Apollo capsules hit the Pacific. The lone Russian “splashdown” was in 1976 on a partially frozen lake amid a blizzard following an aborted mission; the harrowing recovery took hours.

SpaceX made history with this mission, which launched May 30 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was the first time a private company launched people into orbit and also the first launch of NASA astronauts from home turf in nearly a decade. Hurley came full circle, serving as pilot of NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.

Musk monitored the descent and splashdown from SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who both watched the launch in Florida, sent congratulations..

“Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!” Trump tweeted.

NASA turned to SpaceX and also Boeing to build capsules and ferry astronauts to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttles. Until Hurley and Behnken rocketed into orbit, NASA astronauts relied on Russian rockets. SpaceX already had experience hauling cargo to the space station, bringing those capsules back to a Pacific splashdown.

“This is the next era in human spaceflight where NASA gets to be the customer,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said from Johnson Space Center in Houston shortly before the astronauts’ return.

SpaceX needs six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew around the end of September. This next mission of four astronauts will spend a full six months aboard the space station. Hurley and Behnken’s capsule will be refurbished for another flight next spring. A Houston company run by a former NASA official, meanwhile, has partnered with SpaceX to send three customers to the space station in fall 2021.

Boeing doesn’t expect to launch its first crew until next year. The company encountered significant software problems in the debut of its Starliner capsule, with no one aboard, last year. Its capsules will touch down in the U.S. Southwest desert.

By beating Boeing, SpaceX laid claim to a small U.S. flag left at the space station by Hurley and the rest of the last shuttle crew. The flag — which also flew on the first shuttle flight — was carefully packed aboard the Dragon for the homecoming.

Also on board: a toy dinosaur named Tremor, sent into space by the astronauts’ young sons.

The boys recorded a wake-up call for their fathers Sunday morning, urging them to “rise and shine” and “we can’t wait to see you.”

“Don’t worry, you can sleep in tomorrow,” said Behnken’s 6-year-old son Theo, who was promised a puppy after the flight. “Hurry home so we can go get my dog.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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