Nasa claimed a triumphant return to US space travel as SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle 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 on Sunday afternoon near Pensacola, Florida. A SpaceX vessel was to hoist the capsule carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onto its deck less than one hour after their arrival. The astronauts said they felt fine after landing.
Their flight marked the first time US astronauts have flown to the orbiting lab aboard an American spacecraft since Nasa’s space shuttle programme ended in 2011 — and an inspiration for a nation grappling with a pandemic, civil unrest and a tattered economy. Behnken and Hurley launched for the space station on May 30 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies.
“We have splashdown!” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet. “Welcome home.”
Behnken and Hurley initiated a burn at 1.56pm on Sunday to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, with the capsule undergoing temperatures of as much as 1,927ºC during the flight. The Dragon splashed down less than an hour later.
The astronauts’ safe return gives Nasa a proven commercial vehicle to transport personnel to and from the space station. Boeing is developing a second spacecraft for Nasa’s commercial crew programme, the CST-100 Starliner, though the project has been beset by delays and a botched test flight in 2019 with no astronauts aboard.
The Dragon’s flight is also a successful milestone in the agency’s efforts to commercialise the space economy and become a customer for private enterprises’ products and services as it works to return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars.
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 valued SpaceX at $44bn.
Nasa has tentatively scheduled the Dragon’s next flight — the programme’s first operational mission — for late September, pending thorough reviews of data collected from the latest. That 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 programme, which saw astronauts splash into the Pacific Ocean with retrieval by ships. The last US 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.
An ocean return in the Dragon was expected to be more physically gruelling than the Space Shuttle’s gliding descent to a landing strip, and astronauts will need to train for some additional rigours, Hurley said Friday in a news conference from the space station. He and Behnken planned to stow “hardware” in case either became ill: airsickness bags and towels.
“If that needs to happen that certainly won’t be the first time that’s happened in a space vehicle,” Hurley quipped. “It will be the first time in this vehicle if we do. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
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