Two astronauts plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, marking a milestone in NASA’s years-long effort to have commercial companies, rather than government, ferry astronauts from the International Space Station.
(TNS) — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola Sunday afternoon. Their once white spacecraft, now a toasty brown from the heat of re-entry, marked the country’s first water landing since 1975.
It was a milestone in NASA’s years-long effort to have commercial companies, rather than the government, ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, is the first private company to own and operate a vehicle trusted to launch — and now land — NASA astronauts.
“This was an extraordinary mission and extraordinary day,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said during a news conference, “for NASA, for SpaceX, frankly for Americans and anyone interested in spaceflight.”
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket on May 30, began its return journey Saturday after separating from the International Space Station at 6:35 p.m. CDT.
It was traveling 17,500 miles per hour before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Heat, up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and drag slowed the spacecraft to about 350 mph. Two drogue parachutes deployed at about 18,000 feet, slowing it to 119 mph at about 6,000 feet when the four main parachutes deployed. It hit the water going roughly 15 mph at 1:48 p.m. CDT.
It’s not a soft landing, especially after two months in microgravity. Commentators for the splashdown described it as a fender bender.
Astronaut Jack Lousma described it as a “train wreck.” His capsule got turned upside down when it returned from the Skylab space station in 1973.
“After two months in space and being weightless, we were now hanging from the ceiling looking downward in the water,” Lousma said in an oral history with NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The Apollo-era capsules had balloon-like devices to flip them over. The Crew Dragon has a water ballast that pumps water into bags to turn the capsule upright (it was not needed Sunday).
The capsule carrying Joseph Kerwin, who also visited Skylab in 1973, stayed upright upon landing. But it gently bobbed in the ocean for a while making Kerwin, who decided a strawberry drink would help with hydration, seasick.
“If you want to see a sick puppy, I mean, somebody who's not feeling good, there's a photograph of Joe Kerwin,” his crewmate Paul Weitz recalled in his oral history.
To help with the water landing, Hurley said the astronauts will “do our fluid loading” — drink a salt-and-water concoction — prior to re-entry to help offset some effects caused by microgravity. Astronauts are sometimes light-headed or faint upon re-entry, and some are unable to remain upright when standing.
Such effects are caused by changes to the human body while in microgravity, including a drop in blood volume (the total amount of fluid in arteries, veins, chambers of the heart, etc.). The astronauts are healthy in space, as this is the body’s appropriate response up there, but upon returning to Earth they are, in essence, dehydrated and anemic.
The salt-and-water drink helps restore fluids and jumpstart their blood volume level for the initial shock of being back in gravity, though some astronauts still get light-headed or faint.
Shortly after landing, Behnken and Hurley said they were feeling good. Still, they had “hardware” onboard if they started to feel queasy.
“Just like on an airliner, there are bags if you need them and we’ll have those handy,” Hurley said during a news conference prior to departing the space station. “We’ll probably have some towels handy as well. If that needs to happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in a space vehicle. It would be the first time in this particular vehicle.”
At a press conference a few hours after landing, the two astronauts were seated.
“We’re not going to stand right now,” Hurley said. “For those of you who have done this before, you know it’s not pleasant standing for a few hours after you get back. Five hours ago we were bobbing around in the Gulf of Mexico, so I feel like it’s pretty good that we got this far in five hours.”
Another news conference with the astronauts is scheduled Tuesday, and Hurley has promised to keep the public apprised about the journey back.
NASA’s history in water landings partly stems from where it launches — along the coast. If a Mercury, Gemini or Apollo capsule needed to be separated from its rocket during launch, the capsule’s abort path would be over the water, said Phil Smith, a space industry analyst at Bryce Space and Technology.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft, on the other hand, is landlocked and needed an abort capability to land on solid ground. That’s a reason why the Soyuz lands in Kazakhstan, Smith said.
There were concerns that Behnken and Hurley’s return would be derailed by Tropical Storm Isaias, previously a hurricane, but the storm stayed along Florida’s east coast and left the west coast open for landing. SpaceX had potential landing sites on both coasts.
Behnken and Hurley’s spacecraft was on the deck of the GO Navigator recovery ship 30 minutes after splashdown. And while the area was clear for their landing, curious boaters had encroached on the spacecraft — and posed a potential for interfering with operations — before Crew Dragon was hoisted out of the water.
“It was just a beautiful day, lots of people out maybe boating or fishing and then saw the capsule and kind of came in,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “We have some work to do with SpaceX. We will work together to do a better job for the next splashdown.”
The hatch opened at 2:59 p.m. CDT, and the astronauts were assisted out of the capsule and checked out by medical professionals. A helicopter brought them to the shore, and then a plane carried them home to Houston.
Their spacecraft stays in Florida, where its data and performance will be scrutinized. This is expected to take about six weeks and culminate with SpaceX receiving certification to begin more routine flights to the International Space Station.
“This is really just the beginning,” Shotwell said. “We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low-Earth orbit. And on to the moon. And then ultimately on to Mars. So today is a great day. We should celebrate what we all accomplished here today bringing Bob and Doug back, but we should also think about this as a springboard to doing even harder things.”
©2020 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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