In the first water landing by NASA astronauts since the Apollo era in the 1970s, two astronauts who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon have splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.
Their landing, after a two-month voyage and NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years, wasn’t without last-minute concern as at least 25 recreational vessels crowded around the floating capsule as it sat in the waves off Florida’s Pensacola coast.
A flotilla of watercraft, one carrying a Trump flag, hovered around the vessel as the recovery team detected small amounts of nitrogen tetroxide, a potentially toxic propellant, outside the capsule.
SpaceX and NASA officials confirmed the levels detected posed no danger to humans and that the air inside the spacecraft was clean.
The US Coast Guard has launched an investigation into the perimeter breach, saying it had alerted boat owners to the splashdown hours before it landed.
“They put themselves and others at risk through their actions,” a statement read.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley left the International Space Station on Saturday and returned home to land in the waves on schedule, following a 21-hour overnight journey aboard Crew Dragon Endeavour.
The successful splashdown was a final key test of whether Elon Musk’s spacecraft can transport astronauts to and from orbit – a feat no private company had previously accomplished.
“No matter where you are on planet Earth, this is a good thing,” he said after the splashdown.
For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked together to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Colonel Behnken and Colonel Hurley’s speed of 28,000km/h in orbit down to 560km/h upon atmospheric re-entry, and eventually 25km/h at splashdown.
During re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 1927 degrees. Colonel Behnken and Colonel Hurley, strapped inside the cabin, experienced 30 degrees.
They spent up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieved them for a helicopter trip ashore.
The duo had medical checks ahead of a flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
Mr Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Colonel Behnken and Colonel Hurley, who have spent more than two months on the space station.
The landmark mission that lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on May 31 marked the first time the US space agency had launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011.
Since then the US has relied on Russia’s space program to launch its astronauts to the space station.
Colonel Behnken and Colonel Hurley’s homecoming was also the first crewed splashdown in an American capsule in 45 years.