They made it.
On Sunday afternoon a slightly charred spacecraft dropped out of the blue sky, and splashed down into a placid Gulf of Mexico. The safe return of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken from orbit capped a nearly 64-day mission that proved the viability of a new spacecraft built by SpaceX, Crew Dragon. It was a complete success.
"This was an extraordinary day," said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, during a post-flight news conference. "It was an enormous relief after months of anxiety."
NASA and SpaceX will now closely study data collected during this test flight, and based upon this analysis the Crew Dragon vehicle will likely be certified for operational missions to the International Space Station. The first of those missions may come as soon as late September, when three NASA astronauts and on Japanese astronaut are due to begin a six-month stint in orbit.
This summer's test flight of Dragon brings to a close a nine-year gap in human spaceflight capability at NASA. Since July, 2011, the space agency has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to the space station. Now, NASA has its own transportation. Within the next year a second U.S. vehicle, Boeing's Starliner, should also make its first test flight with three astronauts. Hopefully, there will never be such a gap again.
"We are entering a new era of spaceflight," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has supported public-private partnerships to leverage NASA know-how and the drive of private industry to push spaceflight forward. "The Commercial Crew Program has really just proven the business model for how we go forward, and how we do more than weve ever been able to do before."
A smooth mission
Dragon undocked from the space station on Saturday night and then spent about 19 hours performing a series a phasing burns to line up for a reentry to land in the Gulf of Mexico. NASA and SpaceX had the choice of seven locations around the state of Florida, and chose the Gulf side due to the track of Tropical Storm Isaias along the Atlantic side of the state.
The weather in the Gulf could not have been more sedate, with nearly stationary winds and calm seas. The Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken, carried on through the very high temperatures of atmospheric return, during which plasma prevented communication for about six minutes. But after this blackout the spacecraft emerged into the lower atmosphere unscathed, popped its drogue parachutes, followed by its mains, and then a smooth splashdown.