SpaceX capsule leaves ISS as US astronauts aim for splash off Florida coast

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The first astronauts launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company left the International Space Station on Saturday night for the final and most important part of their test flight: the return to Earth with a rare splashdown.NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken bid farewell to the three left-behind as their SpaceX Dragon capsule detached itself and headed for a Sunday afternoon parachute descent in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the tropical storm Isaias surging towards Florida’s Atlantic coast, NASA said the weather looked favorable off Pensacola, on the opposite end of the state.

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.”

Astronauts Bob Behnken, front left, and Doug Hurley, front right, are expected to crash in the Atlantic off Florida on Sunday. (NASA / The Associated Press)

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.

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