NASA, SpaceX make history as astronauts splash down

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SpaceX Falcon 9 vents during fueling about 15 minutes before the launch was scrubbed due to lightning in the area of Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on July 8, 2020. - Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — America’s quest to once again fly humans to space and bring them back again was realized Sunday with a cannonball splash into the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s taken six years to forge and test SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and on Sunday at 2:48 p.m., Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down off the coast of Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico. Their return to Earth comes after 63 days aboard the International Space Station.

“Welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mike Heiman, crew operations and resources engineer for SpaceX.

The veteran astronauts will soon emerge from the Crew Dragon capsule, the first private spacecraft built to launch humans and the first that’s lifted off from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. And in that moment, the United States will have solidified its position in the modern-day space race.

Sunday’s splashdown bookended a 19-hour journey through space, after the astronauts undocked their capsule called Endeavour on Saturday night at 7:35 p.m. They spent the first leg of the trip sleeping, then woke up to a message from their sons and ate breakfast.

Just a few moments before splashdown, the spacecraft entered a nerve-wracking six-minute blackout during which it couldn’t communicate with ground teams. “We will see you on the other side,” the team on Earth said. “Talk to you then,” Hurley replied.

There was a moment of relief when Hurley came back online: “Never heard you louder and clearer.”

Since departing the ISS, the capsule has traveled more than 27 million miles, going 17,500 mph, 20 times the speed of sound. Two boats sped out to check the capsule and now teams from the “Go Navigator” recovery ship are working hoist it on board and then open the hatch.

The Pensacola site was chosen after it became clear that Tropical Storm Isaias would be threatening the Atlantic Ocean zones that included Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral. Some unauthorized private vessels appeared to have gathered in the vicinity, one that looked to be waving a Trump flag.

It was the first time in 45 years that astronauts splashed down and the first water landing in the Gulf of Mexico. The last splashdown, in the Pacific Ocean, came at the end of Apollo moon program in 1975.

Behnken, an Air Force colonel and test pilot from Missouri, and Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel from New York, were selected for the mission in part because of their extensive experience in space. Both flew two space shuttle missions and Hurley actually piloted NASA’s last shuttle flight on the Atlantis.

The duo are also close friends. They became astronauts together, are married to fellow astronauts and Hurley was the best man at Behnken’s wedding. Both are also dads. Benhken’s son Theodore is 6 and Hurley’s son Jack is 10.

But before there was “Bob and Doug,” as mission control operators refer to them, there was Ripley, SpaceX’s mannequin who got the first ride on Crew Dragon in March 2019. Outfitted in her own sleek, white spacesuit, it was up to Ripley — named for Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, in the “Alien” movie franchise — to help ensure the spacecraft was safe for humans.

After her successful launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk admitted he was “emotionally exhausted.” After the capsule took off, he told reporters at the time that he turned to Hurley and Behnken who told him, “‘We are feeling good about flying on it.’”

More than a year later, they did. On May 30, with tens of thousands people watching from the Space Coast, they climbed into the same capsule that brought them home Sunday and launched atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Their flight ended a nine-year drought without crewed missions from U.S. soil.

After nearly a day-long trip through space, they arrived at the ISS, greeted by compatriot Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Ivan Vagnerand and Anatoly Ivanishin who launched from Kazakhstan aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket in April. If Hurley and Behnken’s mission was successful, America would be less reliant on Russia, the only way U.S. astronauts can travel to the ISS since the shuttle program stopped. A seat on the Soyuz goes for $81 million-a-pop.

There, Hurley and Behnken tested the livability of the capsule and performed spacewalks to do upgrades to the ISS.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)