Two NASA astronauts made a dramatic return to Earth in an unprecedented retro-style space voyage splashdown. Enclosed in Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, they catapulted from space on a bumpy, hot descent back through Earth’s atmosphere. Dodging a tropical storm, the capsule parachuted safely into the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles off Florida’s west coast. Sunday’s splashdown made history, marking a milestone by changing future space missions forever.
It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years––and the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The splashdown landing clears the way for future SpaceX crews and passengers.
Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken arrived back on Earth less than a day after leaving the International Space Station.
The ride home was fast and furious. The spacecraft went from a screaming speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric reentry. It slowed to 15 mph before impacting Gulf waters. The top G forces felt by the crew were four to five times the pull of Earth’s gravity. The capsule arrived scorched and blistered on the outside, but its crew stayed safe inside.
“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters. A small gathering of friends and family—including a very relieved Musk—greeted the astronauts. President Trump and Vice President Pence congratulated the crew. “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two-month mission. Thank you to all!” President Trump tweeted.
The splashdown marked the beginning of a new era of space travel, spurred by capitalism. It was the first completed mission of a joint commercial-slash-government-funded space flight. The mission is a game-changer for space travel. In the future, space travel—both for scientific exploration and leisure—can be contracted by private enterprises.
The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the pre-space shuttle days. This week’s splashdown didn’t look much different. Astronaut Thomas Stafford––commander of the last crew to splash down—watched from his home. He was pleased with the safe return but not overly impressed by the splashdown. Not much changed since his own journey from space to the sea decades earlier.
(NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley are seen inside the SpaceX capsule shortly after landing. Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)