SpaceX Brings NASA Astronauts Home in Milestone Test Flight

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NASA completed a triumphant return to U.S. space travel as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule plopped into the Gulf of Mexico with two astronauts, successfully concluding the company’s first crewed test flight to the International Space Station.

The spacecraft splashed down at about 2:48 p.m. Eastern time Sunday near Pensacola, Florida. A SpaceX vessel hoisted the vehicle carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onto its deck less than an hour after their arrival. The hatch opened at 3:59 p.m. and the astronauts emerged a short time later.

“Welcome home,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet.

The return of Behnken and Hurley capped the first mission in which U.S. astronauts flew to the station on an American spacecraft since NASA’s shuttle program ended in 2011. The highly anticipated flight also provided an inspiration for a nation grappling with a pandemic, civil unrest and a tattered economy. The astronauts launched for the space station on May 30 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by Elon Musk’sSpace Exploration Technologies Corp.

After collecting the capsule, SpaceX staff encountered residual vapor fumes vapors on the Dragon, which delayed their progress on helping Behnken and Hurley to exit. The company targets having the crew out of the Dragon within an hour of splashdown.

Behnken and Hurley initiated a burn at 1:56 p.m. Sunday to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, with the capsule undergoing temperatures of as much as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius) as it approached the planet. The Dragon splashed down less than an hour later.

@realDonaldTrump

Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!8:54 PM · Aug 2, 2020

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The astronauts’ safe return gives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a proven commercial vehicle to transport personnel to and from the space station.Boeing Co. is developing a second spacecraft for NASA’s commercial crew program, the CST-100 Starliner, although the project has been beset by delays and a botched test flight last year with no astronauts aboard.

The Dragon’s flight is also a successful milestone in the agency’s efforts to commercialize the space economy and become a mere customer for private enterprises’ products and services as it works to return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars.

For SpaceX, the flight is a signature achievement 18 years after Musk founded the company with the ultimate goal of populating other planets. The mission also cements SpaceX’s spot as the most valuable firm in the “New Space” industry and is likely to aid future fundraising efforts, which have recently included discussions of adeal that would valued SpaceX at $44 billion.

Congratulations poured in from President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama, Boeing andBlue Origin, the rocket maker backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos.

NASA has tentatively scheduled the Dragon’s next flight for late September, pending thorough reviews of data collected from the latest operation. That mission will carry three NASA astronauts and one from JAXA, Japan’s space agency. A second Dragon flight will launch in early 2021, with NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, Behnken’s wife, serving as pilot.

The ocean landing comes after a 45-year hiatus and harks back to NASA’s Apollo program, which saw astronauts splash into the Pacific Ocean with retrieval by ships. The last U.S. space return by sea was the joint Apollo-Soyuz docking mission, which ended with the Apollo capsule’s return in July 1975, northwest of Hawaii.

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