On Sunday, August 2nd, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley splashed down with their Crew Dragon spacecraft (Endeavour) in the Gulf of Mexico. This brought their historic mission (Demo-2) to a close and marked the beginning of a new era in space exploration. For the first time in almost ten years, astronauts bound for the ISS had been launched from American soil – effectively restoring domestic launch capability to the US.
It was also the first time in over forty-five years that American astronauts returned to Earth by splashing down at sea. Last, but not least, it was the first time a commercially-built vehicle transported astronauts to space and returned them safely. After splashing down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, the Endeavour was recovered by the SpaceX recovery ship “Go Navigator” and Behnken and Hurley were assisted onto the deck.
The Demo-2 flight launched from Space Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30th. Shortly after reaching orbit, astronauts Robert and Douglas named their spacecraft Endeavour in honor of the first Space Shuttle each had flown aboard. By May 31st, after nineteen hours in space, the two astronauts rendezvoused with the ISS’ Harmony Module and joined the crew of Expedition 63 on board.
After a total of 64 days in orbit, 62 of which were spent aboard the ISS, Behnken and Hurley boarded the Endeavour again on Aug. 1st. After returning to Florida, they were flown to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where their families and special guests were waiting for them as part of a welcome home ceremony.
Among the many people welcoming them home was NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who said the following in a NASA press release:
“Welcome home, Bob and Doug! Congratulations to the NASA and SpaceX teams for the incredible work to make this test flight possible. It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible. Partners are key to how we go farther than ever before and take the next steps on daring missions to the Moon and Mars.”
Also on hand was SpaceX’s Chief Engineer Elon Musk and Mark Geye, the Director of the NASA Johnson Space Center. During the course of the ceremony, Behnken and Hurley answered questions and discussed their recently completed mission. The entire event was broadcast live on NASA Television and can be seen again by going to the agency’s NASA Live website.
Musk also spoke during the event and appeared visibly relieved that Benhken and Hurley made it safely back. Addressing the implications this successful spaceflight would have, he said:
“What this heralds is a fundamentally a new era in spaceflight, a new era in space exploration, where we’re going to go the Moon, we’re going to have a base on the Moon, we’re going to send people to Mars, and make life multi-planetary. This day heralds a new age of space exploration. That’s what it’s all about. And this is the result of an incredible amount of work from people at SpaceX [and] people at NASA.”
As already noted, this mission was also the first time US astronauts splashed down in decades – the last time being July 24th, 1975. It was on this day that astronauts Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald “Deke” Slayton landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts (Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov) rendezvoused in orbit for the first time.
This moment of cooperation established a precedent that continues to this day with the ISS, which is something Behnken and Hurley got to take part in. During the course of the mission, they assisted with a number of scientific experiments, which included contributing images to the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) study (which catalogs how Earth is changing over time due to human factors and natural causes).
They also helped install a new European Drawer Rack Mark 2 in the space station’s Columbus module, tested out the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), installed a Robotic External Leak Locators (RELL) to the Robotic Tool Stowage (RiTS) during a spacewalk, and carried out the Droplet Formation Study inside of the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) and Capillary Structures investigation.
They also conducted spacewalks and public engagement events during the 62 days they spent aboard the ISS. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Gwynne Shotwell also congratulated the astronauts for completing this historic flight:
“On behalf of all SpaceX employees, thank you to NASA for the opportunity to return human spaceflight to the United States by flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Congratulations to the entire SpaceX and NASA team on such an extraordinary mission. We could not be more proud to see Bob and Doug safely back home—we all appreciate their dedication to this mission and helping us start the journey towards carrying people regularly to low Earth orbit and on to the Moon and Mars. And I really hope they enjoyed the ride!”
The Demo-2 mission was part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), a partnership between NASA and the commercial space sector to produce the spacecraft necessary to restore domestic launch capability to US soil – something it has not enjoyed since 2011 with the retiring of the Space Shuttle Program. This flight was the final test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, as well as the orbital, docking, reentry, and recovery operations involved.
The Endeavour is now back at the SpaceX Dragon Lair in Florida, where teams are inspecting it and processing its mission and performance data. This data will inform SpaceX’s preparations for the first operational flight (dubbed Crew-1) that will send astronauts to the ISS later this year, pending NASA certification.
Further Reading: NASA