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Space and Physics

NASA, SpaceX Make History With First Astronaut Splashdown In A US Craft In 45 Years

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Katy Evans

Managing Editor

clockAug 3 2020, 16:23 UTC

For the first time in 45 years, US astronauts splashed down in US waters in a US spacecraft. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

NASA and SpaceX made history again this week. Nine weeks after sending the first astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in a commercially built spacecraft – the first rocket to launch from US soil in nearly a decade – they have successfully brought those astronauts home in the first ocean landing of a US spacecraft in 45 years.

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After leaving its docking station on the ISS at 7.35pm EDT on August 1, SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley safely splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, 64 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Florida at 2.48 pm ET (1.48pm local time) on Sunday, August 2. 

The recently named Endeavor capsule’s journey took it from speeds of 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour) in orbit, slowing down to 560 kmh (350 mph) during re-entry – where it blistered through temperatures peaking at 1,900°C (3,500°F) – to a final sedate 24 kmh (15 mph) as it parachuted into the water.

The capsule Endeavour parachuted in at a stately 24 kilometers per hour to land in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2. NASA/Bill Ingalls

Complications could have arisen due to the many private boats that ignored the safety restriction zone and converged precariously close to the capsule on landing – one even motored past flying a Trump campaign flag – but ultimately the splashdown was a success for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, whose aim is to fly people to and from space from the US again.

"Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX," said Mission Control at SpaceX headquarters on their arrival.

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"It was truly our honor and privilege," replied Hurley.

Support teams and curious onlookers who ignored safety restrictions approach the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor capsule, which looked a little scorched. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After the capsule was hauled by a crane onto a recovery ship, Behnken and Hurley were seen to by a medical crew that had been in strict quarantine, before being flown to Houston and greeted by family, officials, and a very emotional Elon Musk.

“This day heralds a new age of space exploration," the SpaceX founder said. "I'm not very religious, but I prayed for this one.”

Astronauts Robert "Bob" Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley (right) give the thumbs up to their safe return. No word yet on whether the sparkly dinosaur returned with Behnken and Hurley or is staying on the ISS to keep Earthy company. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Welcome home, Bob and Doug! Congratulations to the NASA and SpaceX teams for the incredible work to make this test flight possible,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible. Partners are key to how we go farther than ever before and take the next steps on daring missions to the Moon and Mars.” 

When asked about the over a dozen private boats that entered the landing zone, Bridenstine admitted it raised concerns about security and safety measures for both astronauts and onlookers, as the boats could have impeded a rescue operation or put themselves in danger if the capsule gave off toxic fumes. “I think all of America was very anxious to see the capsule land in the water, but yeah, it’s something we need to do better next time,” he said during a news conference.

The US Coast Guard confirmed patrol boats had been deployed hours before the scheduled splashdown but some boaters chose to ignore radio requests to stay clear of the area and got within meters of the capsule once it had landed. “With limited assets available and with no formal authority to establish zones that would stop boaters from entering the area, numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews’ requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger,” they said in an issued statement

A 10 nautical miles restriction zone was requested but difficult to implement, and some chose to ignore the safety measures - a running theme this year. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It looks like NASA and SpaceX are already looking forward to the next crewed mission, Crew-1, which will fly three US astronauts and one from Japan to the space station in late September.

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