SpaceX lands NASA astronauts in the ocean for the first time in decades

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft splashes down with astronauts for the first time ever. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has successfully landed NASA astronauts in the ocean for the first time in almost half a century, completing the most important mission in the company’s history and setting it up for an imminent operational launch debut.

Roughly 19 hours after NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley boarded Crew Dragon and departed the International Space Station (ISS), the spacecraft ejected its trunk section and commanded a final reentry burn. 40 minutes later, Crew Dragon and its two astronaut occupants truly began to reenter Earth’s atmosphere traveling some 20-25 times the speed of sound, producing superheated plasma that prevents communication with the ground for around 10 minutes.

Right on schedule, SpaceX headquarters reacquired Crew Dragon’s signal, confirming that it had successfully made it through what CEO Elon Musk deemed the single riskiest moment of the mission prior to launch.

Finally, around 11:48 am EDT (15:48 UTC), Crew Dragon – having successfully deployed drogue and main parachutes for the second time after an orbital launch – gently splashed down in the ocean. In a global spaceflight first, Crew Dragon actually splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. For NASA, it’s the first time astronauts have actually splashed down since the final Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) capsule launch in July 1975, more than 45 years ago.

Crew Dragon capsule C206 and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were successfully recovered on August 2nd. (SpaceX)

Despite at least a dozen extraordinarily irresponsible private boaters trespassing on the highly sensitive and dangerous post-splashdown recovery operations and an inexplicable lack of Coast Guard enforcement, SpaceX teams managed to bring Crew Dragon and its passengers aboard recovery vessel GO Searcher just half an hour or so after splashdown.

After purging Crew Dragon’s service section to get rid of slightly off-nominal concentrations of dinitrogen tetroxide (NTO) oxidizer, the spacecraft’s hatch was finally opened at 1 pm EDT (17:00 UTC), around 80 minutes after splashdown. Astronaut Bob Behnken exited the capsule first around 8 minutes later, followed by mission commander Doug Hurley shortly thereafter.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley are pictured moments before boarding Crew Dragon. (SpaceX)

The successful return of Behnken and Hurley marks the completion of Crew Dragon’s inaugural Demo-2 astronaut launch and officially ends nine years NASA spent without the domestic ability to launch its own astronauts. Incredibly, NASA and SpaceX plan to waste no time to attempt an even more ambitious crewed launch – Crew Dragon’s operational astronaut launch debut.

Known as Crew-1 and scheduled to launch as early as late September, less than two months from now, Crew Dragon C206’s safe recovery means that SpaceX and NASA can begin an extensive review and (hopefully) qualify the spacecraft for operational launches. Aside from a new Crew Dragon capsule expected to arrive in Florida just a week or so from now, it’s believed that all rocket hardware is already on site for Crew-1.

A step further, the very capsule that just successfully returned NASA astronauts to Earth is scheduled to be reused as few as seven months from now on SpaceX’s second operational astronaut launch, Crew-2. According to SpaceX, the refurbishment process may have already begun and should be complete just a few months from now, offering at least as many months of buffer.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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