SpaceX aces splashdown to return NASA astronauts to Earth

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NASA and SpaceX have finally sent humans into orbit.
Image: SpaceX | NASA

In late May, SpaceX made history by being the first private spaceflight company to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Now, Elon Musk’s rocket firm has completed its inaugural manned mission.

On Sunday afternoon, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule containing NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. It marks the completion of the historic Demo-2 mission. Should the comprehensive review go smoothly, SpaceX will move forward with its first operational Crew Dragon mission (rather than a glorified test like the Demo-2 mission) later this year.

Total Mission Success

Behnken and Hurley actually departed the ISS on Saturday, undocking while inside the Crew Dragon vehicle at 7:35 p.m. ET. They then began a nearly 20-hour journey back to Earth.

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NASA live-streamed the capsule’s return on Sunday prior to its splashdown at 2:48 p.m. ET. The mission had a total of seven different splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to choose from. Ultimately, a location off the coast of Pensacola, Florida was chosen. Thanks to beautiful weather, the astronaut duo had calm waters to land in.

Following the always-tense reentry phase, Crew Dragon’s parachutes deployed as expected with the capsule nearing the water. It now bears scorch marks as a sign of its journey.

A SpaceX recovery ship named GO Navigator waited on site to retrieve Behnken and Hurley as well as the vehicle they returned in. During a news conference from aboard the ISS on Friday, the duo said that they had bags ready in case they got seasick while waiting for their retrieval. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case and the astronauts said they were feeling well following the splashdown.

A brief delay ensued as crew members purged toxic vapor fumes from around the capsule to ensure a safe recovery. As part of standard return-from-space procedures, both Behnken and Hurley were taken to a medical facility aboard the ship for an initial checkup.

Hurley had memorable words as he emerged from the Crew Dragon capsule, saying, “To anybody who has touched Endeavor [the capsule’s nickname], you should take a moment to just cherish this day.”

Indeed, Sunday’s return is a monumental occasion not only for SpaceX but for the entire space industry.

Ready for More

With a fully successful manned mission under its belt, SpaceX is ready to aggressively pursue the future of private human spaceflight. Its first operational Crew Dragon mission will bring four astronauts—three from NASA and one from Japan—to the ISS for an extended stay.

So long as the post-mission assessment is clean, SpaceX should be able to move forward with its timeline of launching later this year. It was previously considering an August launch. At this point, it remains unclear when the next manned Crew Dragon mission will take place.

Due to the success of the Demo-2 mission, another flight can’t be far behind.

Meanwhile, the success bolsters SpaceX’s reputation in an increasingly crowded spaceflight industry. Musk’s company has cemented its lead over Boeing and Blue Origin and will likely attract plenty of business from NASA in the coming years. Likewise, it should have plenty of opportunities in the civilian sector as space commerce grows.

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