Manned SpaceX capsule prepares to return to Earth for the first time


CAP CANAVERAL, Fla .– The first astronauts to ride a SpaceX capsule into orbit headed for a retro-style splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday afternoon to close a two-month test flight.

It will mark the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts and the first return to the Gulf. Unlike Florida’s Atlantic coast, already feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaias, the waves and wind were calm near Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken left the International Space Station on Saturday night and woke up to a recording of their young children urging them to ‘get up and shine’ and ‘we can’t wait to see you’.

“Don’t worry, you can sleep tomorrow,” said Theo, Behnken’s 6-year-old son, who was promised a puppy after the flight. “Hurry back so we can go get my dog.”

Their atypical return by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company – the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to transport people to and from orbit – had to be swift, bumpy, and hot, at least on the outside.

The Dragon capsule, named Endeavor by its crew, was to go from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph (28,000 km / h) to 350 mph (560 km / h) upon re-entering the atmosphere and finally 15 mph (24 km / h) during splashing. . Peak heating during descent: 3500 degrees Fahrenheit (1900 degrees Celsius). Upper G Forces: Four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.

A SpaceX salvage ship with more than 40 personnel, including medics and nurses, was set to move in during the ditching, with two smaller, faster boats in the lead. To ensure the safety of returning astronauts in the pandemic, the recovery team self-quarantined for two weeks and was tested for the coronavirus.

SpaceX expected the ship to take half an hour to get to the capsule and extra time to get it out of the water on deck. An air surgeon would be the first to examine the capsule after the hatch was opened. After the medical examinations, the astronauts were to return home to Houston.

The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to the water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific, the scene of most of the splash, to end a joint US-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz. The Mercury and Gemini crews of the early to mid-1960s were parachuted into the Atlantic, while most of the later Apollo capsules hit the Pacific. The only Russian “splashdown” took place in 1976 on a partially frozen lake in the middle of a blizzard following an aborted mission; the heart-wrenching recovery took hours.

SpaceX made history with this mission, launched on May 30 from Florida. It was the first time a private company had put people into orbit, and also NASA’s first astronaut launch in nearly ten years. Hurley has come full circle, serving as the pilot of NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of that SpaceX flight.

NASA turned to SpaceX and also Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the space station, following the withdrawal of the shuttles. Until Hurley and Behnken went into orbit, NASA astronauts relied on Russian rockets.

SpaceX needs six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew towards 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.

Boeing does not plan to launch its first crew until next year. The company encountered significant software issues when it launched its Starliner capsule, with no one on board, last year.

By defeating Boeing, SpaceX claimed an American flag left at the space station by Hurley and the rest of the shuttle’s last crew. The flag – which also flew on the first shuttle flight – was carefully packed aboard the Dragon for the ride home.


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