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SpaceX: NASA astronauts return safely from milestone mission


America’s first crewed spaceship to fly to the International Space Station in nearly a decade returned safely to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The mission, carried out jointly by NASA and the private company SpaceX, demonstrated that the United States has the capacity once more to send its astronauts to space and bring them back.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed into the water off Pensacola, Florida at 2:48 pm (1848 GMT), trailed by its four main parachutes.


It was the first water landing for a crewed US spaceship since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.

“It’s truly our honor and privilege,” said pilot Doug Hurley, who was joined on the mission by commander Bob Behnken.

“On behalf of the NASA and SpaceX teams, welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” replied SpaceX’s Mike Heiman, to laughter in the control room.

– Uninvited visitors –

A flotilla of civilian boats swarmed the landing zone as a recovery ship sped to the scorched capsule and hoisted it aboard with its crane.


The Coast Guard said it had warned people to stay away from the capsule but “numerous boaters” ignored the requests.

The “capsule was in the water for a good period of time,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, “the boats just made a beeline for it.”

This NASA photo released August 2, 2020 shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft as it lands with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.  Bill INGALLS / NASA / AFP

The hatch opening was delayed as a team worked to stop a potentially dangerous leak of rocket fuel vapor.

“What’s not common is having passers-by approach the vehicle at close range with nitrogen-tetroxide in the atmosphere… We need to make sure we’re warning people not to get close to the spacecraft in the future,” Bridenstine said.


Around an hour after splashdown, the astronauts exited the capsule and headed for shore on a helicopter.

They were reunited with their families in Houston, where they walked off a plane — in apparently good physical shape and upbeat spirits — at a military base.

Addressing a socially distanced welcome ceremony in a hangar, Behnken, a veteran of the Space Shuttle program, praised the SpaceX team behind the successful mission.

“There’s something special about having that capability to launch and bring your own astronauts home,” he said.


A visibly excited SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the mission heralded a new era.

“We’re going to go to the Moon, we’re going to have a base on the Moon; we’re going to Mars,” he said.

“I’m not very religious but I prayed for this one.”

This handout photo released courtesy of NASA shows support teams and curious recreational boaters arrive at the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on August 2, 2020.  Bill INGALLS / NASA / AFP

– Space autonomy –

President Donald Trump — who had travelled to Florida for the capsule’s launch two months ago — hailed its safe return.


“Thank you to all!” he tweeted. “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission.”

The United States has had to rely on Russia for rides to space since the last Space Shuttle flew in 2011.

The mission is also a huge win for Musk’s SpaceX, which was founded in only 2002 but has leap-frogged its way past Boeing, its main competitor in the commercial space race.

The US has paid the two companies a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts, though aerospace giant Boeing’s efforts have floundered.


– Atmospheric re-entry –

The Crew Dragon capsule performed several precisely choreographed sequences in order to return home safely.

First, it jettisoned its “trunk” that contains its power, heat and other systems, which burned up in the atmosphere.

This handout photo released courtesy of NASA shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft is seen as it lands with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, on August 2, 2020. NASA/AFP

It then fired its thrusters to maneuver into the proper orbit and trajectory for splashdown.

As it re-entered the atmosphere at a speed of around 17,500 mph (28,000 kph), it experienced temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1900 degrees Celsius).


It deployed two sets of parachutes on its descent, bringing its speed down to a mere 15 mph as it hit the Gulf of Mexico.

Endeavour will now undergo a six-week inspection to certify the vessel as worthy of future low-Earth orbit missions.

The next mission — dubbed “Crew-1” — will involve a team of four: three NASA astronauts along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission specialist Soichi Noguchi.

Launch is set for late September, and the crew is due to spend six months on the space station.


Breaking: SpaceX craft carrying 2 astronauts depart ISS for Earth


The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft shoved off from the International Space Station on Saturday with two US astronauts on board, beginning their journey back to Earth despite a storm threatening Florida.

NASA footage showed the capsule drifting slowly away from the ISS in the darkness of space, ending a two month stay for the first US astronauts to reach the orbiting lab on an American spacecraft in nearly a decade.

“And they are off!” the US space agency tweeted, with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken set to splash down Sunday.


“(They) will spend one more night in space prior to returning to their homeland, Earth,” NASA tweeted.

Their proposed splash-down sites are off the coast of western Florida’s panhandle, while tropical storm Isaias is headed toward the state’s east coast.

The first US astronauts to reach the International Space Station on an American spacecraft in nearly a decade might not come home this weekend as scheduled because of Hurricane Isaias, NASA said July 31, 2020. Credit: AFP

NASA opted to go ahead with bringing the pair home despite the threat of Isaias, which was downgraded to a tropical storm from a hurricane on Saturday.


The agency later added the capsule was confirmed to be “on a safe trajectory.”

“Now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase after we undock, hopefully a little bit later today,” Hurley said in a farewell ceremony aboard the ISS that was broadcast on NASA TV.

“The teams are working really hard, especially with the dynamics of the weather over the next few days around Florida,” he said.

Earlier, during the ISS ceremony, Behnken said that “the hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part in bringing us home.”


Addressing his son and Hurley’s son, he held up a toy dinosaur that the children chose to send on the mission and said: “Tremor The Apatosaurus is headed home soon and he’ll be with your dads.”

Behnken later tweeted: “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.”

‘Exciting day’
Mission chief Chris Cassidy called it an “exciting day” and hailed the importance of having a new means to transport astronauts.

The mission, which blasted off May 30, marked the first time a crewed spaceship had launched into orbit from American soil since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.


It was also the first time a private company has flown to the ISS carrying astronauts.

This handout picture released courtesy of NASA shows SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour firing one of its thrusters to back away from the International Space Station photographed by Space Station Commander Chris Cassidy on August 1, 2020. Chris Cassidy / NASA / AFP

The US has paid SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts.

But Boeing’s program has floundered badly after a failed test run late last year, which left SpaceX, a company founded only in 2002, as the clear frontrunner.

For the past nine years, US astronauts travelled exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets, for a price of around $80 million per seat.


SpaceX’s Screwed Launch Save America’s Status.

You never know what you’ve got til it’s gone. And if you don’t believe that, consider the national jubilation at 3:22 PM EDT Saturday afternoon, when an American rocket carrying an American crew lifted off from American soil for the first time since 2011, carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS). The successful launch comes just a few days after Wednesday’s initial attempt was scrubbed due to weather.


The last time there was this kind of U.S. hoopla for a mere flight to low-Earth orbit might have been the first time, on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet. Orbital flight has since become routine, with 135 missions flown by the space shuttle fleet alone. But when the last shuttle was retired in 2011, America became a grounded nation—even a humbled nation—reduced to hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft at a cool $80 million a seat. So Saturday’s launch, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, sends one signal more powerfully than any other: when it comes to space, America is back.

“This is a big moment in time,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press conference earlier this week. “It’s been nine years since we’ve had this opportunity.”

It’s not just the fact that America is flying again, it’s the way that it’s flying. Saturday’s launch was the result of 10 years of work under NASA’s commercial crew program, an initiative begun in 2010 to get the space agency out of the business of flying astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and turn the job over to private companies. NASA would then buy the services of the commercial providers like any other customer, freeing up the space agency to concentrate its human-exploration efforts on crewed missions to the moon and Mars. The space agency concedes that for today’s flight it is in many ways the junior partner.

“SpaceX is controlling the vehicle, there’s no fluff about that,” said Norm Knight, a NASA flight operations manager, in a conversation with the Associated Press.


But in truth, the program was never truly as private-sector as it seemed. After NASA selected both SpaceX and Boeing to develop and build the new crew vehicles, it paid the companies $6.8 billion—$2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing—in research and development funding, and contracted with them to ferry cargo and crew to the space station once they had built working ships.

Both companies were supposed to begin flying crews as early as 2016, and both are clearly well behind schedule. Boeing looked like it might be the first out of the gate after the uncrewed test launch of its CST-100 Starliner in December 2019. But while the spacecraft made it safely both to orbit and back home, a software failure caused it to use too much maneuvering fuel, preventing it from achieving its principal objective of docking with the ISS. Boeing now needs to repeat the uncrewed flight—and get it right this time—before it will be permitted to carry astronauts. That left the field clear for SpaceX to be first—an opening it took advantage of with Saturday’s launch.


Credit for SpaceX’s big win goes in large measure to the company’s proven line of hardware, including its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. Counting its maiden flight in June 2010, it had 83 launches before today’s, in some cases ferrying satellites to orbit for paying customers, in other cases making cargo runs to the ISS. Part of the secret of the Falcon 9’s reliability is its simplicity. Rather than design entirely different rockets for different payload sizes, SpaceX goes by a simple more-is-better rule. Its first rocket, the Falcon, used a single engine, powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. The Falcon 9, true to its name, uses a cluster of 9 of the same engines; and the Falcon Heavy, the bruiser of the SpaceX fleet, lifts off under the power of a whopping 27 engines, arranged in three clusters of nine.

What further sets the Falcon 9 apart from its competitors—such as United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V or Europe’s Ariane 5—is its reusable first stage. Instead of just dumping the spent stage in the ocean when the rocket is partway to space, SpaceX designs its first stages to fly back to a landing platform and touch down on extendable legs, allowing them to be refurbished and re-used. So far, there have been 41 such successful landings, and 31 first stages have flown more than once. The result: cost savings. SpaceX advertises its services at $62 million per launch, compared to $165 million for Atlas or Ariane.


The Dragon spacecraft is similarly reusable. The Cargo version of the spacecraft has been flown 22 times—21 of which involved resupply missions to the space station. Nine of the launches have involved vehicles that already had undergone at least one previous flight. The interior space of the Crew Dragon is configurable to hold from two to seven astronauts. It stands 8.1 m (26.7 ft) tall and is 4 m (13 ft) wide. That’s a big jump over the old Apollo spacecraft at 3.2 m (10.5 ft) tall and and 4 m (13 ft) across. And again, while the very purpose of the commercial crew program was get the government out of the business of designing spacecraft for low-Earth orbit, no one pretends that with NASA’s own astronauts in the seats, the space agency itself would not be at least a collaborator in the design process.


“[SpaceX] had this vision of how the Crew Dragon should look, feel and operate,” says John Posey, lead engineer for NASA’s Crew Dragon team. “But we had two-way communication as we started building components, testing components, test flying components, just making sure that we were always working together and coming in towards the best, optimized solution.”

Behnken and Hurley were good choices for the maiden Dragon mission. Both are veterans of two space shuttle missions, and Hurley, fittingly, was one of the crew members aboard the final space shuttle mission in 2011. Despite all that, once they reach the ISS, they will be just two more crew members, the 64th such crew to launch to the station in the 20 years it has been continuously occupied. They will join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, getting the station’s crew complement closer to its customary six.


Behnken’s and Hurley’s stay will be relatively short, as space station visits go. They will remain aboard for at least a month, though in no case will they remain for longer than 110 days, since the current Crew Dragon is not rated for a longer stay in the punishing environment of space. (Ultimately, the Dragon will be required to be certified for a 210-day stay.) Part of what will determine when the two new arrivals will come home will be the progress Boeing makes in developing its Starliner. There are only two docking ports aboard the station; one is now occupied by the Russians’ Soyuz rocket and the other will accommodate the Dragon. If Starliner is ready for its scheduled uncrewed test flight before the Dragon’s 110 days are up, Behnken and Hurley will have to climb aboard and clear out to make room.

But all of that is for later. Today is for savoring the simple fact that the U.S. has once again rejoined the family of space-faring, astronaut-launching, future-gazing nations. The nation that for generations led the world in the exploration of space is now poised to reclaim that mantle.



SpaceX’s next possible launch window as first crush

The launch of a SpaceX rocket ship with two NASA astronauts on a history-making flight into orbit has been called off with 16 minutes to go in the countdown because of the danger of lightning.

Liftoff is rescheduled for Saturday.

The spacecraft was set to blast off Wednesday afternoon for the International Space Station, ushering in a new era in commercial spaceflight and putting NASA back in the business of launching astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade.


Ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian rockets to carry astronauts to and from the space station.

With thunderstorms threatening a delay, two NASA astronauts climbed aboard a SpaceX rocket ship Wednesday for liftoff on a history-making flight that was seen as a giant leap forward for the booming business of commercial space travel.

Space veterans Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were scheduled to ride into orbit aboard the brand-new Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, taking off for the International Space Station at 4:33 p.m. EDT from the same launch pad used during the Apollo moon missions a half-century ago.


Smiling, waving and giving the traditional thumbs-up, the two men said farewell to their families — exchanging blown kisses and pantomiming hugs for their young sons from a coronavirus-safe distance — before setting out for the pad in a gull-wing Tesla SUV, another product from SpaceX’s visionary founder, Elon Musk.

Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence arrived to watch the liftoff.

The flight would mark the first time a private company sent humans into orbit.


It would also be the first time in nearly a decade that the United States launched astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil. Ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

With 2 1/2 hours to go before liftoff, controllers put the chances of launch at just 40 percent because of thunderstorms at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Thunder could be heard as the astronauts made their way to the pad, and a tornado warning was issued moments after they climbed into their capsule.

In the event of a postponement, the next launch opportunity would be Saturday.


The preparations took place in the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak that has killed an estimated 100,000 Americans.

“We’re launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. We haven’t done this really since 2011, so this is a unique moment in time,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

With this launch, he said, “everybody can look up and say, ’Look, the future is so much brighter than the present.′ And I really hope that this is an inspiration to the world.”


Musk, wearing a mask and keeping his distance, chatted with the two NASA astronauts just before they left for the launch pad. The mission would put Musk and SpaceX in the same league as only three countries — Russia, the U.S. and China, which sent astronauts into orbit in that order.

“What today is about is reigniting the dream of space and getting people fired up about the future,” he said in a NASA interview.

A solemn-sounding Musk said he felt his responsibilities most strongly when he saw the astronauts’ wives and sons just before launch. He said he told them: “We’ve done everything we can to make sure your dads come back OK.”


NASA pushed ahead with the launch despite the viral outbreak but kept the guest list at Kennedy extremely limited and asked spectators to stay at home. Still, beaches and parks along Florida’s Space Coast are open again, and hours before the launch, cars and RVs already were lining the causeway in Cape Canaveral.

The space agency also estimated 1.7 million people were watching the launch preparations online during the afternoon.

Among the sightseers was Erin Gatz, who came prepared for both rain and pandemic. Accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, she brought face masks and a small tent to protect against the elements.


She said the children had faint memories of watching in person one of the last shuttle launches almost a decade ago when they were preschoolers.

“I wanted them to see the flip side and get to see the next era of space travel,” said Gatz, who lives in Deltona, Florida. “It’s exciting and hopeful.”

Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, are both two-time shuttle fliers.


NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to transport astronauts to the space station in a new kind of public-private partnership. Development of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules took longer than expected, however. Boeing’s ship is not expected to fly astronauts into space until early 2021.

“We’re doing it differently than we’ve ever done it before,” Bridenstine said. “We’re transforming how we do spaceflight in the future.”