SpaceX's Endeavour crew capsule nails water landing, brings NASA astronauts home in historic mission for US

Endeavour autonomously undocked from the ISS on Sunday, 2 August at 5:05 am IST and less than a day later, splashdown in Florida.


After spending two months at the space station, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken have returned to Earth in a historic mission for the US.

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission was a big deal for the United States – the first successful test of a commercial crew program to shuttle astronauts to the space station from US soil, after a decade of relying on Russian rockets.

The SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule autonomously undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, 2 August at 5.05 am IST (Saturday, 1 August at 7.35 pm EDT). Less than a day later, Endeavour along with its two occupants splashed down in a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Florida on Monday, 3 August at 12.18 am IST (2 August at 2.48 pm) EDT.

 SpaceXs Endeavour crew capsule nails water landing, brings NASA astronauts home in historic mission for US

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft is seen as it lands with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on board in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Recovery Endeavour and the crew onboard

After undocking from the space station, they began gradually decreasing their orbital altitude overnight and woke up to recorded wake-up calls from their sons.

"Good morning Dragon Endeavor," Hurley's son 10-year-old Jack said in a recorded message sent to the capsule. "I'm happy you went into space but I'm even happier that you're coming back home."

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

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley are seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after having landed. Image credit:NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken left, and Douglas Hurley is seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after having landed. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

When they were getting ready to splashdown, the onboard thrusters and four Mark III parachutes autonomously slowed the capsule's velocity. It brought Behnken and Hurley's speed of 28,158 kph in orbit down to 563 kph upon reentry in the atmosphere, to an eventual 24 kph velocity at splashdown. As the capsule reentered Earth's atmosphere, its outer shell withstood temperatures of roughly 1, 926 degrees Celsius (3,500 Fahrenheit), while Behnken and Hurley experienced a comfortable 29 degrees Celsius (85 deg F) inside.

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the crew capsule was hoisted aboard the SpaceX recovery ship GO Navigator. After preliminary medical check-ups, the astronauts were flown by helicopter to Pensacola and then to Houston

"On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to Planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX," SpaceX mission control said upon splashdown.

"It was truly our honour and privilege," Hurley had radioed back.

The recovery of the capsule was not without its drama. Once the capsule had splashed down in the ocean, private boats “just made a beeline for it,” according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. The boats got very close to the capsule, endangering a sensitive mission. Bridenstine promised to do a better job of keeping sightseers on pleasure boats safely away next time.

Private boats could be seen near the capsule during recovery. image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Private boats could be seen near the capsule during recovery. image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk rushed to Houston from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to welcome them. “I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one,” he said.

Hurley and Behnken made their first public appearance in Houston, Texas, during a media event after they had met their families.

“It took years to get here, we brought the capability back to America, and we came home safely to our families, and it took a lot of people a lot of time to make that happen,” Behnken said.

“We are entering a new era of human spaceflight where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware. We’re going to be a customer, one customer of many,” Bridenstine said from Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“I would love to see a fleet of crew Dragons servicing not just the International Space Station but also commercial space stations.”

NASA and SpaceX teams will inspect the Crew Dragon Endeavour in SpaceX’s Dragon Lair in Florida over the next few weeks. A thorough review will be conducted of all the data and performance of the spacecraft from the test flight. This review will take around six weeks to complete after which SpaceX’s crew transportation system will be certified for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the space station.

According to Space.com, it would be a surprise if the data showed any anomalies since Demo-2 appears to have gone very smoothly, from liftoff to splashdown.

Demo-2 was no ordinary mission

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission to the space station was wrought with uncertainty, since it was the first time SpaceX was launching astronauts after being NASA's chosen commercial cargo-partner for more than a decade. Human spaceflight is incredibly difficult and expensive; the rockets need to be reliable and the capsule the astronauts will travel in, safe for human spaceflights. To date, only three countries – Russia, the United States and China – have achieved this feat.

Secondly, this mission is important because this mission marked the first time in almost ten years that American astronauts were launched into space from American soil. With the Demo=2 mission, SpaceX also became the first private company to launch astronauts to space. With a successful crewed mission in its kitty once again, NASA has its eyes set on refining this capability to launch humans to the moon with its Artemis mission, planned for 2024/5.

While this was just a test flight, a lot is riding on this mission for SpaceX – most importantly, their commercial crew partnership with NASA. This test flight served as an end-to-end demonstration of SpaceX’s ability to send a crew to space and back. This mission will also lay the groundwork for all of SpaceX's plans for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Finally, the mission's success is also a signal that makes space tourism seems technologically possible. SpaceX is already signing up passengers for trips to space at $35 million a seat.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A during preparations for the Demo-2 mission. Image credit; NASA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A during preparations for the Demo-2 mission. Image credit; NASA

Astronauts kept busy while in space

While onboard, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken worked on a number of science experiments separately and together.

Hurley conducted the Droplet Formation Study, which evaluates water droplet formation and water flow. He also experimented with the use of different structures and containers to manage fluids and gases in the zero gravity environs of the space station.

Behnken conducted four spacewalks with astronaut Chris Cassidy. Among other things, they upgraded two power channels, routed power and ethernet cables at the station, and removed the coverings in preparation for the arrival of the Nanoracks commercial airlock later in 2020.

Hurley and Behnken also worked on the Electrolysis Measurement (EM) experiment, which looks at bubbles created using electrolysis and has implications for numerous electrochemical reactions and devices. They also contributed images to the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) study. CEO images help record how our planet is changing over time, from human-caused changes like urban growth and reservoir construction, natural events including hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, etc.

What does the future hold?

Later this year, NASA and SpaceX will team up again for the first official flight in the Crew Dragon program – Crew-1 – to carry four astronauts to the ISS, with one female astronaut Shannon Walker, and one international astronaut Soichi Noguchi from Japan. NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins will act as Crew Dragon commander and Victor Glover will be the pilot.

The Endeavour capsule will be reused in the second Crew mission that is supposed to take place next year. This mission will also include four astronauts and one of them has a special connection to Demo-2 Behnken – his wife Megan McArthur who will also be part of the Commerical Crew Mission. The rest of the crew will include Shane Kimbrough who will act as the spacecraft commander, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

"Of course, I'll have a lot of tips for her," Behnken said during a news conference while he was at the ISS. "A lot of them will be about how life on space station goes...but I'll definitely have some advice about living inside of Dragon and where best to pack all your personal items so that you can get to them conveniently."


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