Houston, TX – The Endeavour spacecraft returned to Earth in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, with the capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to close out an unprecedented flight by NASA and Houston-based SpaceX.
It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with last time space to water landing being on July 24, 1975. It is also the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from Earth’s orbit. Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode the SpaceX Dragon capsule back to Earth less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida. The capsule parachuted into the calm gulf waters off the coast of Pensacola.
“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” the company’s Mission Control said.
The Endeavour spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric re-entry, and finally to 17 mph at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The anticipated top G-forces felt by the crew was four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.
The SpaceX recovery ship, GO Navigator, with its staff of 40 moved in following splashdown, with two smaller, faster boats leading the way. To keep the returning astronauts safe from the coronavirus pandemic, the ship’s crew have been quarantined the past two weeks and were tested for COVID-19 prior to the splashdown.
SpaceX took a half-hour for the ship to arrive at the capsule and additional 30 minutes to lift it out of the water onto the deck. A flight surgeon was first to look into the capsule, once the hatch was opened. After medical exams, the astronauts are expected to fly home to Houston for a reunion with their families.
SpaceX made history with this mission, which launched May 30 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It was the first time a private company launched anyone into orbit and also the first launch of NASA astronauts from home turf in nearly a decade. Hurley came full circle, serving as pilot of NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.
DRAGON ENDEAVOUR RETURN AND RECOVERY (8:48:23) – NASA/SPACEX
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing to build capsules that would ferry astronauts to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttle missions. Until Hurley and Behnken rocketed into orbit, NASA had relied on Russian rockets. SpaceX already had experience hauling cargo to the space station, bringing those capsules back to a Pacific splashdown.
SpaceX will need about six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew in a different craft at the end of September. This next mission of four astronauts will spend a full six months aboard the space station. Hurley and Behnken’s capsule will be refurbished for another flight next spring. A Houston company run by a former NASA official, meanwhile, has partnered with SpaceX to send three customers to the space station in fall 2021.
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. Its capsules will touch down in the U.S. Southwest desert. By beating Boeing, SpaceX laid claim to a small U.S. flag left at the space station by Hurley and the rest of the last shuttle crew. That flag — which also flew on the first shuttle flight — was carefully packed aboard the Dragon for today’s ride home.
A stowaway, a toy dinosaur named “Tremor”, was also aboard for the round-trip journey. Introduced in 2018 as part of the Ty Flippables line, Tremor is covered in hundreds of small, dual-color sequins. Flip the sequins to one side and the dino turns a sparkly light blue. Flip them the other way and the Apatosaurus takes on a shiny shade of pink.
The astronauts put the extra passenger to work as it was responsible for identifying when there was Zero Gravity. A video camera aboard the capsule caught the stowaway as Behnken gave Tremor a nudge and sent it tumbling across the cabin during the flight. The doll was tethered to an empty seat to keep it from going too far. 😉