It was the first time in the 59-year history of crewed American space travel that astronauts had used the Gulf as a landing site, adding to other firsts that marked a new chapter in NASA’s human spaceflight program: the first launch of American astronauts to orbit from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 and the first launch into orbit of humans on vehicles owned and operated by a private company.
“Today we really made history. We are entering a new era of human spaceflight," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a news conference after the two astronauts had emerged from the capsule.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, the private company that engineered the flight, called it “an extraordinary mission.”
“This is really just the beginning,” she said. “We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, then onto the moon and then ultimately onto Mars.”
For days, NASA and SpaceX had kept a close eye on Isaias as it developed from tropical storm to hurricane and back again to tropical storm. But they always held the possibility of a Gulf landing in their pocket should the weather in the Atlantic prove unfavorable. NASA and SpaceX had designated seven potential landing targets, four of them in the Gulf, and SpaceX had positioned recovery craft in both locations for any eventuality.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft floated down under a quartet of parachutes and splashed down traveling 15 miles per hour at 2:48 p.m. Eastern time, exactly on time, marking the first time NASA astronauts had landed at sea since Apollo-Soyuz, the joint U.S.-Soviet mission in 1975.
“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome home and thanks for flying SpaceX,” mission control radioed to the spacecraft after it landed.
“It’s truly our honor and privilege,” Hurley responded. “On behalf of the Dragon Endeavour, congrats to NASA and SpaceX.”
The mission — the final milestone in a rigorous test program years in the making — was celebrated as a victory for NASA and its decision under former President Barack Obama to entrust the private sector with the lives of its astronauts. And it served as a rare bright spot in a year full of turmoil and devastation, from the deadly coronavirus pandemic to the social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to the clashes between protesters and authorities in cities from Portland, Ore., to Richmond, Va.
Instead of scenes of exhausted hospital workers, smoke-filled streets, and mounting death tolls from a virus that continues to spread, here were a pair of astronauts, smiling and giving a thumbs up as flight technicians helped them from their spacecraft in a scene reminiscent of the early days of the space program. And it came just days after another triumphant moment for NASA, the launch of the Mars Perseverance rover that is expected to reach the red planet in February.
Shortly after the May 30 launch of the astronauts into orbit, SpaceX founder Elon Musk grew emotional as he talked about the responsibility of getting the astronauts, both fathers to young boys, back to their families safely.
To make it home, the spacecraft undocked from the space station at 7:35 p.m. Eastern time Saturday evening while it was orbiting the Earth at 17,500 m.p.h., or more than 22 times the speed of sound. On Sunday, about an hour before splashdown, it fired its engines for one final burn that began its descent home. As it plunged into the thickening atmosphere, the friction generated enormous heat, as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The capsule, named Endeavour by its crew in homage to the space shuttle of the same name, appeared to weather the trip home successfully, scorch marks and all. The heat shield withstood temperatures that left the once bright white capsule looking like a toasted marshmallow.
Rescue crews descended on the Dragon spacecraft minutes after it landed, stabilizing the capsule as it bobbed in the water, checking to make sure there were no propellant leaks and gathering the parachutes. The spacecraft was then hoisted onto the deck of the Go Navigator recovery ship, where medical personnel were waiting to check out Hurley and Behnken.
The recovery process experienced two small hiccups. After the spacecraft splashed down, private boaters quickly surrounded the Endeavour before SpaceX safety crews could shoo them away. One boat with a Trump flag came mere yards from spacecraft.
The U.S. Coast Guard had cleared a 10-nautical-mile safe zone around the landing site, NASA and SpaceX officials said, but it was quickly breached. The Coast Guard said in a statement it had one 87-foot and one 45-foot ship near the landing site to try to enforce the protective area, but some boaters largely disregarded government warnings to stay clear.
“With limited assets available and with no formal authority to establish zones that would stop boaters from entering the area, numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews’ requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger,” the Cost Guard said in a statement, adding that it would launch a “comprehensive review” of the operation with NASA and SpaceX.
“We had all the clearance that was required at landing. That capsule was in the water for a good period of time and the boats just made a bee line for it,” Bridenstine said. “It’s a big area we have to clear and it’s probably going to take more resources. ... We need to do a better job next time for sure."
Technicians aboard the Go Navigator also briefly delayed opening the hatch because of a build-up of harmful fumes around the capsule. Mission controllers detected higher-than-appropriate amounts of “hypergolic fumes,” or fumes that could explode when coming in contact with one another. Tests found no toxic fumes inside the capsule.
NASA and SpaceX said they also took extra precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic. The crews on the ship were tested and quarantined, and everyone was to be wearing masks.
Each of the astronauts gave a thumbs up sign as they were wheeled off the spacecraft on a stretcher — a routine practice for astronauts who’ve experience prolonged period without gravity.
“Thank you for doing the most important parts and most difficult parts of human spaceflight, sending us into orbit and bringing us home safely," said Behnken, who was first out of the capsule. "Thank you very much for the good ship Endeavour.”
Hurley came out moments later. "For anyone who’s touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to cherish this day given everything that’s happened this year,” he said.
Behnken and Hurley were scheduled to fly back to Houston Sunday to be reunited with their families.
Hurley and Behnken are both married to astronauts they met in their astronaut class 20 years ago. While Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is no longer in the astronauts corps, Benhken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is. She’s scheduled to fly to the space station in the spring of 2021 on the very same spacecraft that brought her husband home Sunday.
Before that happens, NASA and SpaceX will evaluate the capsule to make sure it performed as expected. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX’s next human spaceflight mission could come within six weeks.
CORRECTION: The Associated Press incorrectly described a photo published in an earlier version of this story as an image of Sunday’s landing. It was in fact a photo from a March 2019 test. The image has been replaced with one of the actual splashdown.
August 2, 2020 at 4:11 PM EDT
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken leave their SpaceX Dragon capsule
By Jacob Bogage
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have left the Dragon Endeavour capsule aboard the Go Navigator rescue ship, marking the end of the maiden voyage of NASA’s commercial crew program.
The astronauts splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., just as schedued at 2:48 p.m. Eastern time. Forty minutes later, the spacecraft was hoisted aboard the recovery ship. But SpaceX technicians delayed opening the side hatch to allow medical crews to evaluate Behnken and Hurley because of concerns about toxic fumes.
The astronauts were return to shore via helicopter and be flown to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Said Behnken, who was first out of the capsule: “Thank you for doing the most important parts and most difficult parts of human spaceflight, sending us into orbit and bringing us home safely. Thank you very much for the good ship Endeavour.”
Hurley came out moments later. "For anyone who’s touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to cherish this day given everything that’s happened this year.”
August 2, 2020 at 3:57 PM EDT
Astronauts’ exit from spacecraft delayed by harmful fumes
By Jacob Bogage
SpaceX landing crews delayed opening the hatch of the Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule aboard the recovery ship Go Navigator because of high levels of harmful fumes.
Mission controllers detected higher-than-appropriate amounts of “hypergolic fumes,” or fumes that could explode when coming in contact with one another. Technicians aboard the Go Navigator spent several minutes aerating the service components of the Endeavour to disperse the fumes, which never entered the cabin of the spacecraft. Tests found no toxic fumes inside the capsule.
Even with the delay, SpaceX’s egress, or exit, timeline was well on schedule. Flight planners predicted an hour-long process from the time Endeavour splashed down off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., to when technicians on Go Navigator would open the hatch and allow medical officials to evaluate Behnken and Hurley.
After an hour and one minute past splashdown, which occurred at 2:48 p.m., mission controllers reported the fumes were below harmful levels, but chose to continue the aeration process as an extra safety measure. Asked if they wanted to come out sooner, Hurley said they were happy to wait as long as necessary.
August 2, 2020 at 3:06 PM EDT
By Christian Davenport
It’s called Demo-2 for a reason. Demo is short for demonstration, meaning SpaceX’s mission to fly a pair of NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station is one big test, a way to prove the company is capable to pulling off the feat safely.
The launch and docking two months ago was picture perfect, NASA and SpaceX said. So did the return and splashdown. That means the space agency is likely to certify SpaceX’s vehicles and allow them to begin flying regular operational missions.
The first one, called Crew-1, could happen as soon as late September. NASA has already picked the crew, a quartet of astronauts from different backgrounds.
Victor Glover is a former Navy pilot who flew F/A 18 Hornets. A father of four, he’s never been to space before.
Mike Hopkins is a former football player at the University of Illinois who applied four times to become an astronaut, waiting more than 10 years before he was finally selected in 2009. Since then, he’s flown to space once on the Russian Soyuz.
Shannon Walker was selected to be an astronaut in 2004 after working closely with the space agency, first as a robotics flight controller with Rockwell Collins. In 1995, she joined NASA, working on the space station program. She flew to space on the Soyuz in 2010.
They will be joined by Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut, who has flown to space twice, including the first Space Shuttle mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster.
August 2, 2020 at 3:01 PM EDT
Astronauts report successful splashdown
By Jacob Bogage
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken reported a successful splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., completing their return mission to Earth from the International Space Station.
Moments after the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour capsule hit the water, mission controllers radioed to the crew congratulating them on their return journey.
“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome home and thanks for flying SpaceX,” mission control said.
“It’s truly our honor and privilege,” Hurley responded. “On behalf of the Dragon Endeavour, congrats to NASA and SpaceX.” He later radioed back, “All is well.”
SpaceX fast boats will soon approach the Endeavour to recover its parachutes from the water and check for any leaking propellants. The Go Navigator mother ship will then approach and hoist the Endeavour aboard, where recovery crews will secure the capsule and open the side hatch, allowing medical professionals to evaluate the astronauts and help them out of the spacecraft.
August 2, 2020 at 2:51 PM EDT
Boats speed in to recover astronauts inside landed Dragon capsule
By Jacob Bogage
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are back on Earth, but still a ways from home. SpaceX landing crews will launch two speed boats from the recovery mother ship Go Navigator, stationed three miles away from the projected landing site, to verify that the Endeavour spacecraft is safe and prepared for recovery.
The first boat will check to see if the Dragon capsule is leaking any fluids, propellant or vapors. The second boat will retrieve Endeavour’s four parachutes, which the capsule ejects upon splashdown.
The Go Navigator recovery ship will then approach the Endeavour and hoist it aboard, allowing SpaceX crews to secure the capsule in place and open the side hatch to medically evaluate Behnken and Hurley before they disembark.
August 2, 2020 at 2:48 PM EDT
Dragon spacecraft splashes down in Gulf of Mexico
By Jacob Bogage
The SpaceX Dragon Endeavour capsule carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken has splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., completing an 18-hour flight to Earth from the International Space Station.
The landing marks the end of the first mission for a NASA crew aboard a private-sector spacecraft. SpaceX, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, beat out industry titan Boeing to send the first manned mission to space as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Hurley and Behnken lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 30, and spent 62 days aboard the ISS while NASA and SpaceX officials evaluated the Endeavour’s performance and flightworthiness.
August 2, 2020 at 2:45 PM EDT
Dragon Endeavour capsule deploys drogue parachutes
By Jacob Bogage
The Dragon capsule has deployed its two drogue parachutes to slow its velocity as it plummets back to Earth on a return mission from the International Space Station. The chutes deploy when Dragon reaches an altitude of 18,000 feet and is traveling at 350 miles per hour.
August 2, 2020 at 2:41 PM EDT
Space X reacquires signal with Dragon spacecraft
By Jacob Bogage
SpaceX flight engineers have regained communication with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside the Dragon capsule. Flight crews lost signal with Dragon for about six minutes as the capsule was engulfed in a blazing ball of heat while it reentered Earth’s atmosphere.
August 2, 2020 at 2:37 PM EDT
Dragon capsule goes silent as it enters a harrowing leg of its return journey
By Jacob Bogage
SpaceX flight engineers have lost contact with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside the Dragon capsule as it continues its return mission from the International Space Station. This temporary communication blackout was expected — engineers call the event “LOS,” or “loss of signal” — and is caused by the intense heat that surrounds the capsule as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere. The communication disruption is expected to last six minutes, according to flight plans.
Conditions at the splashdown site are excellent.
August 2, 2020 at 2:24 PM EDT
Dragon capsule closes nose cone
By Jacob Bogage
The nose cone that protects the forward hatch on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has closed, readying the spacecraft to plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere on its return mission from the International Space Station.
The cone closed after the Endeavour capsule fired its Draco thrusters to align its trajectory with its scheduled landing site in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. About 20 minutes after the cone’s closure, the spacecraft will perform several small “attitude adjustments,” or repositioning maneuvers to direct its heat shield downward as it prepares to enter Earth’s atmosphere, where it will enduring temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit and decelerate from 17,500 miles per hour down to just 15 mph when it splashes down.
August 2, 2020 at 2:17 PM EDT
Parachutes can be tricky
By Christian Davenport
There is a lot of new technology loaded into SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. It has touchscreens, like a tablet. Emergency abort thrusters that can fire automatically. It docked autonomously with the International Space Station, like a self-driving car.
But for all the advances that make Dragon a next-generation spacecraft, it will rely on some old and relatively basic engineering to get the astronauts home safely: parachutes.
And the design of the parachutes used by SpaceX turned out to be surprisingly tricky.
“Parachutes are way harder than they look,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in an interview with The Post in the days leading up to the launch. “The Apollo program actually had a real morale issue with the parachutes because they were so damn hard. They had people quitting over how hard the parachutes were. And then you know we almost had people quit at SpaceX over how hard the parachutes were. I mean, they soldiered though, but, man, the parachutes are hard.”
If all goes well, two drogue parachutes will deploy when the spacecraft is at about 18,000 feet, traveling at some 350 m.p.h. Then, as it slows down to about 119 m.p.h., four main parachutes should deploy at about 6,000 feet.
SpaceX has struggled with its parachute design, upgrading the model from what it calls the Mark 2 design to Mark 3 after it suffered a failure during its test program. The upgraded version uses a stronger material in the lines that run to the canopy and a new stitching designed to handle the loads at deployment.
At a press conference late last year, Musk said the Mark 3 parachutes are “probably 10 times safer” than the Mark 2 version. “In my opinion they are the best parachutes ever. By a lot.”
August 2, 2020 at 1:57 PM EDT
Dragon Endeavour begins ‘de-orbit burn,’ committing spacecraft to return mission
By Jacob Bogage
The SpaceX Endeavour capsule has started its “de-orbit burn,” a nearly-12-minute firing of its engines that will plunge it into Earth’s atmosphere from space and begin the most harrowing part of its descent toward the coast of Florida.
Flying through the planet’s atmosphere, the Endeavour will be engulfed by a 3,500-degee Fahrenheit fireball, testing the spacecraft’s heat shield. SpaceX flight engineers will lose communications with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for close to six minutes while the capsule endures that blast of heat.
After emerging, Endeavour will fire off drogue parachutes to slow its momentum, then four larger parachutes to gently lower it into the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola, Fla.
August 2, 2020 at 1:52 PM EDT
Dragon Endeavour spacecraft jettisons ‘trunk’ in preparation for return to Earth
By Jacob Bogage
The astronauts aboard the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft at 1:52 p.m. jettisoned the capsule’s trunk, an annex that contains thermal control, power and avionics system components, in preparation for returning to Earth from the International Space Station.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken left the ISS on Saturday and traveled nearly 17 hours to just outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Jettisoning the trunk is one of the mission’s final steps before committing to return to Earth and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla.
The Endeavour will soon begin a 12-minute “de-orbit burn” in which it will fire its engines to plunge out of Earth’s orbit and into the atmosphere. If SpaceX flight engineers detect unsuitable splashdown conditions, they can call for a last-minute “wave-off” before the engine burn, meaning the Endeavour will stay in orbit for at least another day until conditions improve. But such an eventuality is not expected.
August 2, 2020 at 1:09 PM EDT
SpaceX Dragon capsule begins its final orbit before reentry
By Jacob Bogage
The SpaceX Dragon capsule started its final orbit around the Earth at 12:51 p.m. Eastern time, before beginning its descent to Earth.
About an hour after that final orbit begins, SpaceX flight engineers will give the final “go” order for the capsule’s return, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla.
The Endeavour capsule will jettison its trunk, an annex that contains thermal control, power and avionics system components, at approximately 1:51 p.m., then fire its engines for a nine-minute “de-orbit burn” that will catapult the spacecraft out of orbit and through Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX flight engineers gave a provisional “go” order for that burn shortly after the final orbit sequence began. Engineers, though, can still “wave off” the landing attempt at any time before the “de-orbit burn” if conditions change. The Endeavour has three days’ worth of “consumables” — food, water and oxygen — on board if the crew needs to postpone reentry.