In a landmark moment for commercial space flight, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have splashed down safely in the gulf of Mexico aboard Crew Dragon, a spacecraft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Their return to earth – after spending more than two months at the International Space Station (ISS) – marks the completion of a test flight that has seen NASA astronauts launched from US soil aboard a commercially built spacecraft for the first time.
Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. It also marks the first manned spaceflight test of Crew Dragon and paves the way for the spacecraft’s certification for regular crewed flights to the station.
The mission has been carried out as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is seeing the agency working with SpaceX and Boeing to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit.
Behnken and Hurley’s return was the first splashdown for American astronauts since Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald “Deke” Slayton landed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii on July 24, 1975, at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
During their time aboard the ISS Behnken and Hurley participated in a number of scientific experiments, including studies of water droplet formation and flow, and the use of different structures and containers to manage fluids and gases.
Behnken conducted four spacewalks while on board the space station with Expedition 63 Commander and NASA colleague Chris Cassidy. The duo upgraded two power channels on the far starboard side of the station’s truss with new lithium-ion batteries. They also routed power and Ethernet cables, removed H-fixtures that were used for ground processing of the solar arrays prior to their launch, installed a protective storage unit for robotic operations, and removed shields and coverings in preparation for the arrival later this year of the Nanoracks commercial airlock on a SpaceX cargo delivery mission.
Crew Dragon Endeavour will return back to SpaceX’s Dragon Lair in Florida for inspection and teams will examine the spacecraft’s data and performance from throughout the test flight. The completion of Demo-2 and the review of the mission and spacecraft is expected to pave the way for NASA to certify SpaceX’s crew transportation system for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the space station.