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NASA astronauts return to Earth as SpaceX capsule splashes down in Gulf of Mexico

NBC News logo NBC News 6 days ago Denise Chow and Dennis Romero and Kalhan Rosenblatt and Tim Stelloh
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Two months after NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley made history by launching into space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade, the duo returned to Earth on Sunday.

Behnken and Hurley, whose flight was the first to take place in a commercially built spacecraft, departed the International Space Station on Saturday evening and splashed down off the Florida coast on Sunday. The splash down took place at around 2:48 pm ET.

With all eyes on Tropical Storm Isaias, which was bearing down on Florida's east coast, NASA on Saturday had declared "conditions are 'Go'" for Sunday's return. Isaias was downgraded from a hurricane Saturday. The successful return happened in the Gulf of Mexico while the storm slogged up Florida's east coast.

The splashdown took place off the coast of Pensacola, where a recovery boat that departed its port at 9:20 a.m. was staged for operations. An alternate site of Panama City, also on the gulf, was at the ready, NASA said in a statement Saturday.

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After their scorched capsule was lifted onto the recovery ship, the Go Navigator, a livestream showed crew members in personal protective gear purging toxic fuel vapors before opening the hatch.

Shortly after 4 pm, as Behnken emerged from the capsule and gave a thumbs up, Hurley could be heard thanking everyone who participated in the mission.

"Anybody who has touched Endeavour should take a moment to cherish this day, especially given all of the things that have happened this year," he said.

Hurley emerged moments later and was placed on a stretcher. Both men were taken for standard medical checks before returning to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston.

a close up of a car: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule.

Behnken and Hurley boarded their spacecraft, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and undocked from the space station on Saturday at 7:35 p.m. EDT, according to an International Space Station Facebook post. The astronauts then spent hours orbiting the Earth before splashing down off the Florida coast Sunday afternoon.

The return marks a major milestone for human spaceflight — the first time that NASA astronauts have traveled to and from space aboard a commercially built spacecraft. Completion of the test flight is also a big accomplishment for SpaceX and the entire commercial spaceflight industry.

Prior to Behnken and Hurley’s launch May 30, NASA had been unable to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil since the agency’s space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. A successful Crew Dragon mission ushers in a new era of commercial spaceflight, with private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing taking over routine trips to the space station while NASA pursues other lofty science and exploration goals.

The Crew Dragon capsule had two sets of parachutes that slowed the spacecraft down as it traveled through the Earth’s atmosphere. The first chutes were deployed when the capsule was at an altitude of around 18,000 feet and traveling about 350 miles per hour. Four main parachutes were then released at an altitude of 6,000 feet, when the capsule was moving at around 119 miles per hour, according to SpaceX.

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After the spacecraft splashed down, a recovery ship with more than 40 NASA and SpaceX personnel onboard rendezvoused with the capsule andhoisted it out of the water and onto the ship’s main deck. The astronauts are to undergo medical checks before boarding a NASA plane back to Houston.

NASA has already announced the astronauts selected for the next Crew Dragon launch to the space station, but the capsule will first need to complete NASA’s certification process. After Behnken and Hurley's return to Earth, their spacecraft will now undergo a series of inspections in Florida to assess how the vehicle performed throughout its flight.

If certified, the next Crew Dragon capsule will launch NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, to the space station in late September. The four-person crew will subsequently spend six months living and working aboard the orbiting outpost.

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