CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (CBS SF/AP) — San Francisco Bay Area tech guru Elon Musk joined millions across the country Sunday, cheering the safe return of his SpaceX crew from their historic mission.
The SpaceX capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:48 a.m. off Pensacola, Fla., bringing to an end the two-month mission to the Space Station.
Musk had tweeted “Coming in hot” as the crew began their descent Sunday morning. Musk monitored the descent and splashdown from SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California.
Coming in hot https://t.co/dzFr5BNBfF
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 2, 2020
It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The return clears the way for another SpaceX crew launch as early as next month and possible tourist flights next year.
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, hundreds of miles from Tropical Storm Isaias pounding Florida’s Atlantic coast.
“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters.
“It was truly our honor and privilege,” replied Hurley.
More than an hour after splashdown, the astronauts emerged from their capsule on the deck of a recovery ship, both signaling a thumbs-up as they headed for medical exams.
The astronauts’ ride home in the capsule dubbed Endeavour 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. 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 on board 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 were tested for the coronavirus.
The opening of the hatch was held up briefly by extra checks for toxic rocket fumes outside the capsule. After medical exams, the astronauts were expected to fly home to Houston for a reunion with their wives and sons. Musk was also headed to Texas to meet with them from SpaceX’s Mission Control in California.
Hurley offered final thanks just before he exited the capsule. “Anybody who’s touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to just cherish the day, especially given all the things that have happened this year.”
There was one unexpected problem: Once the capsule was in the water, private boaters “just made a beeline for it,” and got too close, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, promising to do better next time at keeping sightseers far away.
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.
“This is the next era in human spaceflight where NASA gets to be the customer,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said from Johnson Space Center in Houston shortly before the astronauts’ return.
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 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. The flag — which also flew on the first shuttle flight — was carefully packed aboard the Dragon for the homecoming.
Also on board: a toy dinosaur named Tremor, sent into space by the astronauts’ young sons.
The boys recorded a wake-up call for their fathers Sunday morning, urging them to “rise and shine” and “we can’t wait to see you.”
“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.”
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