Splashdown! SpaceX And NASA Astronauts Make History

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The SpaceX capsule sits aboard a recovery ship in the Gulf of Mexico. NASA/Screenshot by NPR hide caption

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NASA/Screenshot by NPR

Two NASA astronauts are back on Earth after their space capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Pensacola, Fla.

The last time any NASA astronauts came home by splashing down was in 1975 — and back then, they were in an Apollo space vehicle. This time, the astronauts were in a white, bell-shaped capsule owned by SpaceX.

The success of their test flight, to the International Space Station and back, is a milestone for SpaceX, the first private company to send people to the outpost.

The company has been taking cargo to and from the station for years. This flight with people on board was the final test for SpaceX’s crew system to be certified by NASA as “operational” for future astronaut missions.

That means the U.S. once again has its own ability to put people in orbit and return them safely. Since retiring its space shuttles in 2011, NASA has had to buy seats for its astronauts on Russian spaceships.

NASA can now rely on an American space taxi that takes off from Florida, and it’s already assigning astronauts to future SpaceX missions — including Megan McArthur, who happens to be married to one of the just-returned astronauts, Bob Behnken.

Behnken and his crewmate Doug Hurley blasted off in their SpaceX Dragon capsule on May 30. Their flight marked the first time people had been launched to orbit from U.S. soil in almost a decade, and they spent two months living and working on board the station.

Then they climbed back into their SpaceX capsule, which they had dubbed “Endeavour,” and undocked from the station on Saturday at 7:34 p.m. ET. They spent the night orbiting the Earth, and then a deorbit burn set their capsule on an irreversible course to re-enter the atmosphere.

Video beamed down from the capsule showed the pair in their sleek black-and-white suits, monitoring their progress on large blue touch screens.

Meanwhile, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., mission controllers wore masks at their workstations, due to COVID-19. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was there, watching the screens and speaking from time to time with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.

Off the coast of Pensacola, a recovery ship waited. Though Hurricane Isaias was headed up the eastern coast of the state, mission managers had judged the weather in the Gulf of Mexico acceptable for the splashdown.

The two astronauts’ communications blacked out, as expected, for several nerve-wracking minutes during their fiery reentry. But then they were back in contact, as the first views of their capsule appeared on video. It dropped through the sky at around 400 miles per hour before two parachutes emerged to slow it down.

Then, four white-and-reddish orange parachutes billowed out, slowing it down even more. The two astronauts braced for impact as their capsule, bearing scorch marks, hit the calm seas with a big splash. Two fast boats raced towards it, as its parachutes drifted down to the water.

Cheering and clapping could be heard in the background as Mission Control told the astronauts, “welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX.”

Going forward, NASA wants to rely on commercial space taxis for routine flights to and from the orbiting outpost — while the government agency focuses on developing vehicles for a return to the moon.

And SpaceX has plans to take other paying customers to space, including on a trip around the moon and back.

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