SpaceX Crew Dragon astronauts land back on Earth with historic splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico

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  • August 2, 2020
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The first astronauts to ride a SpaceX capsule into orbit have landed back on Earth with a historic splashdown.

The retro-style landing saw the Crew Dragon spacecraft plunged into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, marking the first splashdown in 45 years for Nasa astronauts.

SpaceX Dragon pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken left the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday night to face the final leg of their two-month long test flight.

As they landed near Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle, the astronauts were met by calm waves and mild winds, unlike Florida’s Atlantic coast, already feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaias.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to Planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX mission control said upon splashdown.

US president Donald Trump tweeted: “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!”

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who own’s SpaceX, tweeted updates during the landing.

For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked autonomously to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley’s speed of 17,500 miles per hour in orbit down to 350 mph upon atmospheric reentry, and eventually 15 mph at splashdown.

During reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 3,500 Fahrenheit while Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley, wearing SpaceX’s white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, experienced 85 Fahrenheit.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon docked to the International Space station (AP)

The crew will spend up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieve them for a helicopter trip ashore.

There the duo will undergo medical checks ahead of a flight to Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

A SpaceX recovery ship with more than 40 staff, including doctors and nurses, is moving in to pick the pilots up, with two smaller, faster boats leading the way.

Robert Behnken (foreground) and Douglas Hurley, wearing SpaceX spacesuits ahead of their test flight (via REUTERS)

To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew self-quarantined for two weeks and were tested for the coronavirus.

Musk became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning.

The landmark mission, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the US space agency launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011.

The last time Nasa astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific – the scene of most splashdowns, to end a joint US-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz.

The Mercury and Gemini crews in the early to mid 1960s parachuted into the Atlantic, while most of the later Apollo capsules hit the Pacific.

The lone Russian “splashdown” was in 1976 on a partially frozen lake amid a blizzard following an aborted mission; the harrowing recovery took hours.

Astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken prepare for undocking from the International Space Station (Nasa via AP)

The SpaceX was the first time a private company launched people into orbit and also the first launch of Nasa astronauts from home turf in nearly a decade.

Mr Hurley came full circle, serving as pilot of Nasa’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.

Nasa turned to SpaceX and also Boeing to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttles.

Until Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken rocketed into orbit, Nasa astronauts relied on Russian rockets.

SpaceX needs six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew around the end of September.

This next mission of four astronauts will spend a full six months aboard the space station.

Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken’s capsule will be refurbished for another flight next spring. Boeing doesn’t expect to launch its first crew until next year.

The company encountered significant software problems in the debut of its Starliner capsule, with no one aboard, last year.

By beating Boeing, SpaceX laid claim to a US flag left at the space station by Mr Hurley and the rest of the last shuttle crew.

The flag — which also flew on the first shuttle flight — was carefully packed aboard the Dragon for the homecoming.