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SpaceX capsule with NASA astronauts lands in the Gulf of Mexico

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First astronauts launched by SpaceX return to earth

A SpaceX capsule carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after more than two months at the International Space Station, drawing to a close the first mission of the privately owned craft.

The successful mission opens the door for a new era of spaceflight, one in which NASA contracts with private companies such as Hawthorne-based SpaceX to take its astronauts to the space station.

NASA has said such an arrangement cuts down on costs while allowing the agency to focus its attention on more complex endeavors, such as missions back to the moon or forward to Mars. And even those missions will be accomplished with commercial partnerships, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“The Commercial Crew program has really just proven the business model for how we go forward,” he said of NASA’s partnership with SpaceX and Boeing Co. to ferry astronauts to the space station.

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The spacecraft, dubbed Dragon Endeavor, left the space station Saturday afternoon. Behnken and Hurley were able to sleep aboard the capsule before being awoken Sunday morning with an audio message from their young sons.

The capsule maneuvered closer to Earth and then began its de-orbit burn a little before 2 p.m. Eastern time. Crew Dragon then hurtled through the atmosphere, reaching temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool air was pumped through the capsule and into the astronauts’ suits to keep them comfortable.

By 2:43 p.m. Eastern time, live footage from a high-altitude NASA research plane showed a tiny white dot rushing into the frame as the spacecraft sped toward its landing site at about 400 mph.

A minute later, drogue parachutes deployed, slowing the craft down to about 150 mph. Then four main parachutes shot out from the capsule and ballooned into the air, slowing its downward drift to about 15 mph before the craft splashed down at 2:48 p.m. Eastern time near Pensacola, Fla.

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Less than 30 minutes later, a recovery ship came to reel in the capsule onto its deck. The capsule’s hatch was opened around 4 p.m. Eastern time, and Behnken and Hurley were helped out of the capsule shortly after. Both waved or gave a thumbs-up at a camera onboard the ship as they were escorted to a medical examination.

The crew said shortly after landing that they were feeling good.

“Thank you for doing the most difficult parts and the most important parts of human spaceflight — getting us into orbit and bringing us home safely,” Behnken said over the capsule’s communication system shortly before he was helped out of the capsule. “Thank you again for the good ship Endeavor.”

The hatch opening was delayed by the detection of toxic fumes in the outer shell of the capsule. The vapors did not leak into the cabin, but crew aboard the recovery vessel flushed the air around the capsule to make sure it was safe.

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Fume checks are common with spacecraft, including the space shuttle, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. In the future, the spacecraft may purge the system sooner, said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Had there been more wind, the fumes might have dissipated on their own, she said.

It was the first time in 45 years that astronauts have returned to Earth via an ocean landing. The last such landing came in July 1975 when an Apollo capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission.

Since then, spacecraft have made landings on terra firma — the space shuttle landed on a runway and the Russian Soyuz capsule lands in Kazakhstan.

NASA and SpaceX teams will now comb through the data from the capsule and the flight, and prepare to certify the Crew Dragon craft for future, regular missions to the space station. The first of those missions could happen as soon as September.

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SpaceX will also begin to refurbish the capsule for another crewed NASA flight.

In 2014, NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to develop craft to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station.

Under those contracts, SpaceX and Boeing design and own the craft and NASA is simply a customer. NASA has said the arrangement lets the agency focus its attention on more ambitious missions to the moon or Mars, while commercial companies take over more routine spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit, such as carrying cargo or crew members to the space station.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule made its first uncrewed test flight in December, but the spacecraft failed to make it to the space station because of several problems and had to return to Earth days ahead of schedule. Boeing will fly another uncrewed test mission to the space station before launching crew.

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Behnken and Hurley brought back to Earth about 330 pounds of cargo, most of which is science and sampling hardware. But there was also a special item — an American flag left on the space station by the last space shuttle crew for the next crew launching from the U.S. to retrieve.


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