WASHINGTON • Two Nasa astronauts who rode to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon were heading home for splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, capping a two-month voyage that marked the US space agency’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.
Crew Dragon Endeavour decoupled from the orbital station at 7.35pm Eastern Standard Time last Saturday carrying US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley ahead of the splashdown off Pensacola, Florida – the first procedure of its kind in a privately built space capsule.
“It’s been a great two months, and we appreciate all you’ve done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight,” Mr Hurley told the remaining US station crew member Chris Cassidy, as the Crew Dragon autonomously eased away from its docking port to begin the 21-hour journey home.
Nasa and SpaceX – monitoring the crew’s return from Houston, Texas and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California – had last week ruled out splashdown options in the Atlantic owing to Tropical Storm Isaias, expected to churn alongside Florida’s east coast as a hurricane in the coming days.
Upon a successful splashdown at 2.48pm Eastern Standard Time yesterday, the spacecraft would have completed its final key test to prove it can transport astronauts to and from space – a task SpaceX has accomplished dozens of times with its cargo-only capsule, but never before with humans aboard.
“The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home,” Mr Behnken said during a farewell ceremony early last Saturday aboard the space station.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit on May 31, with the launch of Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley, who would have spent more than two months in the space station upon returning.
The mission marked the first time the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched humans from US soil since its shuttle programme retired in 2011. Since then, the United States had relied on Russia’s space programme to launch its astronauts to the space station.
Nasa officials have said the Crew Dragon, an acorn-shaped pod that can seat up to seven astronauts, has been in a “very healthy” condition since docking to the space station, where astronauts have been conducting tests and monitoring how the spacecraft performs over time in space.
Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley would have had a few hours for sleep during their journey home in the capsule, which gradually decreased its orbital altitude through a series of automated thruster firings.
“They’ve got plenty of food and water aboard the spacecraft,” SpaceX engineer Siva Bharadvaj said during a live streaming of the undocking.
Nasa, aiming to galvanise a commercial space marketplace, awarded nearly US$8 billion (S$11 billion) to SpaceX and Boeing collectively in 2014 to develop duelling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.