Two US astronauts splashed down near Florida as the first commercial crewed mission to the International Space Station successfully returned to Earth. The SpaceX Dragon Capsule carrying Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken came down in the Gulf of Mexico just south of Pensacola on Florida’s Gulf coast.
A recovery vessel moved in to pick up the vehicle and transport the men to land.
The touchdown marks the first crewed US water landing since the final outing of an Apollo command module 45 years ago. (Subsequent missions were flown on the Space Shuttle, that landed on an airstrip at the Kennedy Space Center.)
Hurley’s and Behnken’s capsule touched the water at about 14:48 EDT (18:48 GMT).”It’s truly our honor and privilege,” said Hurley as they arrived home. “On behalf of the SpaceX and Nasa teams, welcome back to Planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX mission control responded.
The successful end to the crew’s mission initiates a new era for the American space agency. All its human transport needs near the Earth will in future be purchased from private companies, such as SpaceX. NASA says contracting out to rocket service providers will save it billions of dollars that can be diverted to getting astronauts to the Moon, as part of its Artemis program, and afterwards to Mars.
The Crew Dragon capsule launched to the space station at the end of May on a Falcon 9 rocket, also supplied by SpaceX. It will now be refurbished to fly again next year.
Hurley’s and Behnken’s mission served as an end-to-end demonstration of the astronaut “taxi service” the company, owned by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, will be selling to Nasa from now on.
The Boeing corporation is also developing a crew capsule solution but had to delay its introduction after encountering software problems on its Starliner capsule.
The sight of the vehicle’s four main parachutes floating down over the Gulf of Mexico was confirmation the spacecraft had survived its fiery descent through the atmosphere. The parachutes then slowed the capsule from about 350mph to just roughly 15mph at splashdown.
Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, added: “Today is a great day. We should celebrate what we all accomplished here, bringing Bob and Doug back, but we should also think about this as a springboard to doing even harder things with the Artemis program.