Two NASA astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley splashed down onboard a SpaceX capsule in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday (August 2).
The duo made history as the first crew in a commercially built and operated spacecraft.
After a two-month stint at the International Space Station, the two astronauts completed a test flight that according to NASA is a “new era in human spaceflight.”
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carried Behnken and Hurley as it splashed down in parachutes off the coast of Florida Sunday afternoon, It was immediately recovered by SpaceX.
“Welcome home, Bob and Doug! Congratulations to the NASA and SpaceX teams for the incredible work to make this test flight possible,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
“It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible. Partners are [a] key to how we go farther than ever before and take the next steps on daring missions to the Moon and Mars,” the NASA official added.
SpaceX capsule test flight makes history
Aside from being a historic commercial space flight for NASA, the demo test flight also made other significant achievements.
The return of two astronauts, Behnken and Hurley, was the first splashdown for American astronauts since in 45 years.
The last splashdown for American astronauts was on July 24, 1975.
It was during the end of the Apollo-Soyuz test project that landed off the coast of Hawaii carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald “Deke” Slayton.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30 using the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
After reaching orbit, Behnken and Hurley named their Crew Dragon spacecraft “Endeavour” as a tribute to the first space shuttle each astronaut had flown aboard.
Some 19 hours after liftoff, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule docked to the forward port of the International Space Station’s Harmony module on May 31.
After the mission, Robert Behnken is now tied for completing most spacewalks by an American astronaut with Michael Lopez-Alegria, Peggy Whitson, and Chris Cassidy. Each astronaut has completed 10 spacewalks.
Behnken also spent a total of 61 hours and 10 minutes of spacewalking. This makes him the U.S. astronaut with the third most total time spacewalking and the fourth most overall.
Elon Musk’s ‘dream come true’
During its launch two months ago, SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said the test flight is a ‘dream come true’ for him and everyone at Space X.
It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA, and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen,” the SpaceX chief engineer Musk said in a statement.
During the launch last May, as soon as the Crew Dragon ascended into space, the spacecraft was commanded from SpaceX’s mission control center in Hawthorne, California.
“On behalf of all SpaceX employees, thank you to NASA for the opportunity to return human spaceflight to the United States by flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
“We all appreciate their dedication to this mission and helping us start the journey towards carrying people regularly to low Earth orbit and on to the Moon and Mars. And I really hope they enjoyed the ride!” she said.
Why is the Demo-2 test flight mission important?
The SpaceX Demo-2 mission is the final major test before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station.
As SpaceX’s final test flight, it will validate all aspects of the crew transportation system including the Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft, the Falcon 9 rocket, as well as in-orbit, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.
The Crew Dragon Endeavour will return back to SpaceX’s Dragon Lair in Florida for inspection and processing.
Teams will examine the Space-X capsule spacecraft’s data and performance from throughout the test flight.
The completion of Demo-2 and the review of the mission and spacecraft will pave the way for NASA to certify SpaceX’s crew transportation system for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the space station.
SpaceX is readying the hardware for the first rotational mission, called Crew-1, later this year.
This mission would occur after the NASA certification, which is expected to take about six weeks.
What has been achieved by the mission?
U.S. astronauts Behnken and Hurley participated in various scientific experiments, spacewalks, and public engagement during their 62 days aboard the International Space Station.
Both astronauts of the SpaceX capsule also spent 64 days in orbit, completed 1,024 orbits around Earth, and traveled 27,147,284 statute miles.
NASA also reported that the duo contributed more than 100 hours in supporting the orbiting laboratory’s investigations.
Hurley also conducted the Droplet Formation Study inside of the Microgravity Science Glovebox which evaluates water droplet formation and water flow.
He also conducted the Capillary Structures investigation, which studies the use of different structures and containers to manage fluids and gases.
Hurley and Behnken also worked on numerous sample switch-outs for the Electrolysis Measurement experiment, which looks at bubbles created using electrolysis and has implications for numerous electrochemical reactions and devices.
Both crew members also contributed images to the Crew Earth Observations study.
CEO images help record how our planet is changing over time, from human-caused changes to natural dynamic events.
Behnken conducted four spacewalks while onboard the space station with Expedition 63 Commander and NASA colleague Chris Cassidy.
The duo also upgraded two power channels on the far starboard side of the station’s truss with new lithium-ion batteries among other maintenance activities at the ISS.