SpaceX brings NASA astronauts home safe in milestone mission

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America’s first crewed spaceship to fly to the International Space Station in nearly a decade returned safely to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The successful mission, carried out jointly by SpaceX and NASA, demonstrated that the United States has the capacity once more to send its astronauts to space and bring them back.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed into the water off Pensacola, Florida at 2:48 pm (1848 GMT), trailed by its four main parachutes.

It was the first water landing for a crewed US spaceship since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.

“It’s truly our honor and privilege,” said pilot Doug Hurley, who was joined on the mission by commander Bob Behnken.

“On behalf of the NASA and SpaceX teams, welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” replied SpaceX’s Mike Heiman, to laughter in the control room.

A number of civilian boats swarmed the landing zone as a recovery ship sped to the scorched capsule and hoisted it aboard with its crane.

The hatch opening was briefly delayed as a team worked to stop a leak of rocket fuel vapor.

Around an hour after splashdown, the astronauts exited the capsule and headed for shore on a helicopter. They would then take a plane to Houston, where they will reunite with their families.

“We are entering a new era of human spaceflight, where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a call with reporters.

“This is really just the beginning: we are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, on to the Moon, and then ultimately on to Mars,” added Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

Space autonomy
President Donald Trump — who had travelled to Florida for the capsule’s launch two months ago — hailed its safe return.

“Thank you to all!” he tweeted. “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission.”

The United States has had to rely on Russia for rides to space since the last Space Shuttle flew in 2011.

The mission is also a huge win for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was founded in only 2002 but has leap-frogged its way past Boeing, its main competitor in the commercial space race.

The US has paid the two companies a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts, though aerospace giant Boeing’s efforts have badly floundered.

Atmospheric re-entry
The Crew Dragon capsule performed several precisely choreographed sequences in order to return home safely.

First, it jettisoned its “trunk” that contains its power, heat and other systems, which burned up in the atmosphere.

Endeavour then fired its thrusters to maneuver itself into the proper orbit and trajectory for splashdown.

As it re-entered the atmosphere at a speed of around 17,500 mph (28,000 kph), it experienced temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1900 degrees Celsius).

This caused a brief and expected communications blackout.

It deployed two sets of parachutes on its descent, bringing its speed down to a mere 15 mph as it hit the Gulf of Mexico.

Crew-1
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft had set off from the ISS Saturday evening.

Footage showed the capsule drifting slowly away from the orbital laboratory in the darkness of space.

Its return marks only the beginning for the Crew Dragon as SpaceX and NASA look ahead to future missions.

Endeavor will be brought to the SpaceX Dragon Lair in Florida where it will undergo a six-week inspection to certify the vessel as worthy of future low-Earth orbit missions.

The next mission — dubbed “Crew-1” — will involve a team of four: three NASA astronauts along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission specialist Soichi Noguchi.

Take-off is set for late September and the crew are due to spend six months on the space station.

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