Their ride home in the capsule was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside.
The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric reentry and finally to 15 mph at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius). The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew: four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.
Within a half-hour of splashdown, the scorched and blistered 15-foot capsule was hoisted aboard a SpaceX recovery ship with a staff of more than 40, including doctors and nurses. To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew quarantined for two weeks and was tested for the coronavirus.
The opening of the hatch was held up briefly by extra checks for toxic rocket fumes outside the capsule. After meeting with doctors, the astronauts were flown by helicopter to Pensacola for the flight home to Houston and a reunion with their wives and sons. Musk was also headed to Texas from SpaceX’s Mission Control in California to meet with them.
There was one unexpected problem that could have endangered the operation: Once the capsule was in the water, private boats “just made a beeline for it” and got too close, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, promising to do better next time at keeping sightseers on pleasure boats safely away. NASA video showed one vessel flying a large campaign flag for President Donald Trump.
The Coast Guard in Pensacola said it had deployed two vessels to keep the public at least 10 miles away from the capsule.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who both attended the launch, congratulated the SpaceX and NASA teams.
“Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!” Trump tweeted.
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 U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz. The Mercury and Gemini crews in the 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.
Gemini and Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford — the commander of the last crew to splash down — watched the reentry on TV from his Florida home. While pleased with the crew’s safe return, he wasn’t overly impressed. “It’s what we did over 50 years ago,” he said.
Its throwback splashdown aside, SpaceX made history with the mission, which launched May 30 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It 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. Hurley came full circle, serving as pilot of NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.
In this frame grab from NASA TV, the SpaceX capsule splashes down Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent a little over two months on the International Space Station. (NASA TV via AP)
NASA turned to SpaceX and also Boeing to build capsules and ferry astronauts to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttles. Until Hurley and Behnken rocketed into orbit, NASA astronauts relied on Russian rockets. SpaceX already had experience hauling cargo to the space station, bringing those capsules back to a Pacific splashdown.
“We are entering a new era of human spaceflight where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware. We’re going to be a customer, one customer of many,” Bridenstine said from Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I would love to see a fleet of crew Dragons servicing not just the International Space Station but also commercial space stations.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell called the mission a springboard to “doing even harder things” including collaborating on astronaut flights to the moon and then Mars.
“There’s no question, it was an enormous relief after months of anxiety making sure we could bring Bob and Doug back home safely,” Shotwell said.
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 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. Minutes after splashdown, Musk tweeted a flag emoji followed by “returned.”
“Space is the new air,” he added, promising a bright future for travel.
Also on board: a toy dinosaur named Tremor, sent into space by the astronauts’ sons. The boys recorded a wake-up call for their fathers Sunday morning.
“Don’t worry, you can sleep in tomorrow,” said Behnken’s 6-year-old son Theo, who was promised a puppy after the flight. “Hurry home so we can go get my dog.”