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Two astronauts return to Earth after test flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth today in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, their capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to close out an unprecedented test flight by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The return clears the way for another SpaceX crew launch as early as next month and possible tourist flights next year.

Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode the SpaceX Dragon capsule back to Earth less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida. The capsule parachuted into the calm gulf waters about 40 miles off the coast of Pensacola, hundreds of miles from Tropical Storm Isaias pounding Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” said Mission Control from SpaceX headquarters.

“It was truly our honor and privilege,” replied Hurley.

More than an hour after splashdown, the astronauts emerged from their capsule on the deck of a recovery ship, both signaling a thumbs-up as they headed for medical exams.

Their ride home in the capsule dubbed Endeavour was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside.

The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric reentry, and finally to 15 mph at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew: four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.

Within a half-hour of splashdown, the scorched and blistered 15-foot capsule was on board a SpaceX recovery ship with a staff of more than 40, including doctors and nurses. To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew quarantined for two weeks and were tested for the coronavirus.

The opening of the hatch was held up briefly by extra checks for toxic rocket fumes outside the capsule. After medical exams, the astronauts were expected to fly home to Houston for a reunion with their wives and sons.

Hurley offered final thanks just before he exited the capsule. “Anybody who’s touched Endeavour, you should take a moment to just cherish the day, especially given all the things that have happened this year.”

The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific, the scene of most splashdowns, to end a joint U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz. The Mercury and Gemini crews in the early to mid-1960s parachuted into the Atlantic, while most of the later Apollo capsules hit the Pacific. The lone Russian âsplashdownã was in 1976 on a partially frozen lake amid a blizzard following an aborted mission; the harrowing recovery took hours.

SpaceX made history with this mission, which launched May 30 from NASAás Kennedy Space Center. It was the first time a private company launched people into orbit and also the first launch of NASA astronauts from home turf in nearly a decade. Hurley came full circle, serving as pilot of NASAás last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the commander of this SpaceX flight.

Read more in Monday’s Tribune Chronicle.

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