It will be the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years. The last time was after the joint US-Soviet mission in 1975 known as the Apollo-Soyuz.
Space station commander Chris Cassidy rang the ship’s bell as Dragon moved away, 430 kilometers above Johannesburg, South Africa. Within minutes, all that could be seen from the capsule was a pair of flashing lights against the black void of space.
“These have been an amazing two months, and we appreciate all you have done as a crew to help us prove Dragon on its maiden flight,” Hurley told the space station.
“Have a good trip,” Cassidy replied, “and have a good landing.”
The return of the astronauts will end a mission that ended a prolonged launch drought in the United States, which relied on Russian rockets to transport astronauts to the space station since the end of the shuttle era.
SpaceX, first private company to send people into orbit
By launching Americans Hurley and Behnken from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 30, SpaceX became the first private company to send people into orbit. Now SpaceX is poised to become the first company to bring people back from orbit.
“The hardest part was getting started, but the most important thing is getting us home,” Behnken said several hours before moving on to Dragon.
A successful splashdown, Behnken said, will bring the American crew’s launch ability “to close the loop.”
In a farewell ceremony earlier today, Cassidy, who will remain on board with two Russians until October, presented Hurley with the small American flag left by previous astronauts to launch into the space station from the American soil. Hurley was the pilot of this last shuttle mission in July 2011.
The flag – which also flew on the first shuttle flight in 1981 – became an award for the company that launched the astronauts first.
SpaceX easily beat Boeing, which is not expected to launch its first crew until next year and will land in the Southwestern United States. The flag has one more flight after this one: to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program for the next few years.
“We’re a little sad to see them go,” Cassidy said, “but very excited for what it means for our international space program to add this capability” of commercial crew capsules. The next SpaceX crew flight is scheduled for late September.
Hurley and Behnken also bring back a brilliant blue and purple dinosaur named Tremor. Their young sons chose the toy to accompany their fathers on the historic mission.