Nasa SpaceX crew splash down to Earth in first ocean landing since 1975

2 August 2020, 19:49

Crew dragon splashes back down to Earth after two months in space
Crew dragon splashes back down to Earth after two months in space. Picture: SpaceX

By Kate Buck

Two astronauts on board the first ever commercial spacecraft have splashed down into the Gulf of Mexico in spectacular fashion.

Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have spent the past two months on the International Space Station, after blasting off on 30 May on the Crew Dragon, built by SpaceX.

They landed off the coast of Florida in the first ocean landing since July 1975 during an Apollo mission.

Since then, they have always landed on terra firma, using Nasa's Space Shuttle or the Russian space agency's Soyuz capsules.

The splashdown now ushers in a new era for Nasa, which will have at least one commercial spacecraft ready to launch astronauts into space from US soil.

The Nasa SpaceX crew have returned to Earth
The Nasa SpaceX crew have returned to Earth. Picture: SpaceX
This was a historic journey
This was a historic journey. Picture: SpaceX

The splashdown is the final step in the mission designed to test SpaceX's human spaceflight system - including launch, docking, splashdown and recovery operations.

In a post-launch conference back in May, Elon Musk - the founder of SpaceX - said he was not keen to "declare victory yet", emphasising that the "return can be more dangerous than the ascent".

Mr Musk said at the time: "We need to bring them home safely and minimise that risk of re-entry."

The Crew Dragon performed manoeuvres to lower the capsule's orbit and get it closer to the splashdown zone.

Another manoeuvre, known as de-orbit burn, placed it on a trajectory for splashdown, travelling at about 17,500mph.

On entering the Earth's atmosphere, the Crew Dragon faced temperatures of around 1,900C as it deployed parachutes to slow its speed to around 119mph.

Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley (front) have spent the past two months on the International Space Station
Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley (front) have spent the past two months on the International Space Station. Picture: PA
Doug Hurley waves as he is assisted out of the SpaceX capsule
Doug Hurley waves as he is assisted out of the SpaceX capsule. Picture: SpaceX
Crew Dragon launched on 30 May
Crew Dragon launched on 30 May. Picture: PA

At the point of splashdown, the capsule will be descending at around 15mph.

The re-entry created an expected communications blackout, caused by an envelope of hot air surrounding the capsule, lasting about six minutes.

A SpaceX recovery ship called Go Navigator - made up of spacecraft engineers, recovery experts and medical professionals - were waiting to pull the capsule aboard and help the astronauts get out as they begin readjusting to gravity.

The re-entry marks the end of SpaceX's human spaceflight demonstration mission.

Crew wait for the recovery of Crew Dragon after its landing
Crew wait for the recovery of Crew Dragon after its landing. Picture: SpaceX

The aerospace company's first operational flight is expected to take place in September, where a second Crew Dragon spacecraft will carry four astronauts to the space station.

The capsule that carried Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken into space will be refurbished and launched on SpaceX's second operational crewed mission, Crew 2, due to take place early next year.

Another aerospace company, Boeing, is also developing spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the space station, as part of Nasa's Commercial Crew Programme.