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Rare splashdown caps SpaceX and NASA flight

The SpaceX Crew Dragon with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken as it approaches the International Space Station (AN/NASA)

(Arête News) — NASA test pilots Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley plunged the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, completing the first manned orbit and return in a commercially built and operated spacecraft and first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years.

The two NASA astronauts spent two months at the International Space Station, starting with their May 31 arrival aboard the Crew Dragon capsule. It took them a day to reach the ISS after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made the first American crewed launch in nearly a decade.

Their successful mission, NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 run by NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, ended with the splashdown off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. It sets the stage for SpaceX’s first operational flight with four astronauts in September and commercial flights for tourists next year.

Behnken and Hurley named the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour, a tribute to the first Space Shuttle they each flew. Both are former military pilots who have flown two Space Shuttle missions.

“To anybody who has touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to just cherish this day,” said Behnken.

They flew to the ISS to join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Cassidy commands Expedition 63, the latest ISS mission, which began on April 17 and will continue until the undocking of the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft scheduled in October.

While aboard the ISS for 62 days, Behnken and Hurley participated in scientific experiments, spacewalks and public engagement events. Overall, they spent 64 days in orbit and completed 1,024 orbits around Earth.

The ISS, an international partnership of space agencies from Canada (CSA), Europe (ESA), Japan (JAXA), Russia (ROSCOSMOS) and the United States (NASA), is the “most politically complex space exploration program” ever undertaken, according to NASA.

An enjoyable ride

The last time NASA astronauts splashed down on a return flight was in July 1975 to complete a joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz test project. For almost 30 years, NASA relied on Space Shuttles to bring astronauts to and from the space station. But that program ended in 2011, based on a decision to reallocate those resources.

“Welcome home, Bob and Doug! Congratulations to the NASA and SpaceX teams for the incredible work to make this test flight possible,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

“It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible,” he said. “Partners are key to how we go farther than ever before and take the next steps on daring missions to the Moon and Mars.”

SpaceX President and CEO Gwynne Shotwell thanked NASA for the opportunity to return human spaceflight to the United States. Since the U.S. Space Shuttle program closed, NASA had been paying Russia to launch astronauts aboard Soyuz rockets that cost more than US$80 million per seat.

“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,” said Shotwell. “And I really hope they enjoyed the ride!”

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