Four Draco thrusters fired on the top of SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft at 12:56 p.m. CT Sunday, and the first two astronauts to launch into space from U.S. soil in nine years were committed to returning to Earth for a splashdown 30 miles off the coast of Pensacola.
About 50 minutes after it fired its thrusters 250 miles above the southwestern coast of Australia, Crew Dragon Endeavor successfully deployed parachutes above the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The ship splashed down right on cue at 1:48 p.m. and astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were safely back on Earth. It was the first time a human crewed spacecraft had returned to Earth with a splashdown landing in 45 years and the first time it was ever attempted in the Gulf of Mexico.
The mission, officially named Crew Dragon Demo-2, was the first crewed mission aboard a privately owned spacecraft in history.
Weather played a key role in Endeavor landing off the coast of Pensacola Sunday as other potential landing sites on the east coast of Florida were feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaias.
Landing site Pensacola: SpaceX Crew Dragon aiming for splashdown off coast of Pensacola on Sunday
The Pensacola location is one of seven potential splashdown locations for Crew Dragon missions around the Florida coast. NASA and SpaceX finalized the decision to land at Pensacola on Saturday.
About 150 people gathered together on Pensacola Beach with binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of Crew Dragon's splashdown, but were unable to spot the four orange and white parachutes that carried the crew safely to water. Still, listening online as the crew landed, a roar of applause went up as word arrived the men were safe.
Behnken and Hurley launched from the Kennedy Space Center in May when a Falcon 9 rocket boosted the Dragon spacecraft into orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station were the astronauts lived and worked until leaving the station Saturday.
After splashing down in the Gulf, Endeavor was recovered by the SpaceX recovery ship GO Navigator.
GO Navigator docked at NAS Pensacola overnight and left port Sunday morning to get to the recovery location 30 miles offshore.
The ship, which is owned by Guice Offshore and leased to SpaceX, is a 170-foot ship that has been modified with a helicopter landing pad and a large recovery crane that it used to lift Dragon and the astronauts onboard.
The recovery operation did not go off with out a hitch as at least a dozen private vessels had gathered near the landing site.
At one point, several private boats, with one sporting a Donald Trump campaign flag, were almost right next to the floating spacecraft potentially exposing the boaters to toxic gases of unused thruster fuel.
SpaceX boats had to warn the private boats to move away from Endeavor.
"That was not what we're anticipating," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said when he was asked about the boats during a press conference following the landing.
The U.S. Coast Guard made sure the area was clear during the landing of the ship, but Bridenstine said for future landings they will probably need more resources to ensure the area remains clear.
"That capsule was in the water for a good period of time, and the boats just made a B-line for it," Bridenstine said. "It's a big area to have to clear, and to clear all of it is probably going to require more resources."
Once the ship was brought on board GO Navigator, it took about an hour to open the hatch of Endeavor, as recovery crews had to purge the toxic gases that were trapped in the service section of the spacecraft.
Behnken and Hurley were brought out of Endeavor and taken for a quick medical checkup to see how they were coping in Earth's gravity after living in near weightlessness for 60 days.
After the medical evaluation, the astronauts boarded a helicopter that landed on GO Navigator for a flight to NAS Pensacola. Once there, the astronauts boarded a NASA jet that flew them back to Houston.
What's next: NASA and SpaceX select astronauts for Crew Dragon's second flight to ISS
Before leaving Endeavor, Hurley thanked all the people at NASA and SpaceX that had a hand in the successful mission.
"To anybody that's touched Endeavor, you should take a moment to just cherish this day especially given all the things that have happened this year," Hurley said.
NASA and SpaceX are already preparing for their next two missions to the International Space Station, possibly launching as soon as September. Both missions will carry four astronauts each for a six-month stay at the ISS.
Bridenstine said the mission marked a new era of human spaceflight were NASA is a customer of space flight companies rather than the owner and operator.
"One customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace for human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit," Bridenstine said. "But we also want to have numerous providers that are competing against each other on cost, innovation and safety. Driving down costs and increasing access to space in a way that's never been seen before."
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
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