Astronauts make historic return to Earth aboard SpaceX capsule
August 03 2020 12:23 AM
An opened hatch of the capsule carrying NASA astronauts is seen as one of the astronauts exits it in
An opened hatch of the capsule carrying NASA astronauts is seen as one of the astronauts exits it in the Gulf of Mexico, yesterday, in this still image taken from a video.

Agencies/New York

Two US astronauts returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Sunday, ending a historic mission testing human space flight operations for SpaceX hardware.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who captained the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida's Pensacola.

"Welcome back to planet Earth, thanks for flying SpaceX," mission control said.

The two astronauts were awoken for the final leg of the 19-hour trip on Sunday by audio recordings from their sons, urging them to "hurry home," after the capsule undocked from the ISS a day earlier.

Before leaving orbit, the spacecraft jettisoned its bottom half, known as the trunk, in order to expose the heat shield that protects the capsule and pilots during atmospheric re-entry.

During reentry to Earth's atmosphere, the capsule's outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 3,500 Fahrenheit while Behnken and Hurley, wearing SpaceX's white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, experienced 85 Fahrenheit.

Four giant parachutes deployed inside Earth's atmosphere, slowing the spacecraft down to about 24km per hour for splashdown, down from 25,000 kph it travelled while orbiting Earth.

A SpaceX recovery ship, carrying more than 40 personnel, including engineers and doctors, was ready to hoist the capsule from the water, following checks by two fast boats.

The event, broadcast live by the US space agency, marked the first water landing since 1975 for NASA astronauts.

"Astronauts complete first splashdown in 45 years. Very exciting!" US President Donald Trump tweeted."Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission."

Concerns about the weather had dogged the end of the mission, with tropical storm Isaias moving in the region.

But SpaceX officials described the weather around the splashdown site as "very calm."

The two astronauts launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in May.

It was the first manned launch from US territory in nearly a decade and the first time a private firm, rather than a government space agency, sent astronauts into orbit.

For SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, it was the last major demonstration needed before NASA certifies that the Crew Dragon is ready for regular flights, paving the way for possible tourist flights.

The company had previously only transported cargo to the ISS.

At around 80 mn euros ($94.24 mn) per flight in a Russian Soyuz capsule, this was not only expensive, but also a blow to US pride.

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