(Photo: Getty images)
Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday aboard a SpaceX company capsule after two months in space, a successful demonstration mission that paves the way for regular flights with the new space vehicle.
“Welcome to Earth, and thank you for flying to SpaceX,” SpaceX COO Mike Heiman told the astronauts, greeted with laughter in the control room. “It was an honor and a privilege,” replied Captain Doug Hurley.
It was the first water landing for a US manned shuttle since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.
“I’m not very religious but this time I prayed,” said SpaceX founder, billionaire Elon Musk, after the two men were brought back to earth unharmed.
“Today we have written a page of history,” said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine. He said he wanted to repeat this type of public-private partnership for the return to the moon, with the Artemis program, and one day to go to Mars.
Aboard SpaceX’s Dragon, Doug Hurley and his teammate Bob Behnken went from 28,000 km / h in orbit to 24 km / h on landing off Florida, four large parachutes having opened. as expected at the end of the descent.
Their capsule, scorched by re-entry into the atmosphere, landed off Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico, an area chosen to avoid a tropical storm further east.
Numerous pleasure craft, including one flying a “Trump” flag, moved closer despite the coast guard and had to be pushed aside before the capsule could be hoisted onto a SpaceX ship. “We will have to do better next time,” admitted Jim Bridenstine in the face of the perimeter violation.
In another unforeseen event, toxic fumes emanating from a fuel tank in the capsule had to be emptied, which delayed the opening of the hatch. But an hour and a quarter after their landing, “Bob” and “Doug”, best friends in life, were finally able to get out, on stretchers presumably due to rehabilitation to Earth’s gravity.
Apparently in good physical condition, they flew back to Houston, where they reunited with their families and were to meet Elon Musk.
“There’s no doubt it was a huge relief,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.
This successful round trip to the International Space Station (ISS) is not only the first provided by a private company (founded in 2002), but it ends the Russian monopoly on access to the station since the Americans put in the garage their space shuttles in July 2011.
NASA will use Dragon to send four astronauts at a time, including a Japanese on the next mission in September, and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet in spring 2021.
NASA speaks of a revolution because SpaceX, for three billion dollars granted under a fixed price contract, has entirely developed a new space taxi and promised six round trips to the ISS.
“We are entering a new era of human spaceflight, where NASA is no longer a buyer, owner and operator of equipment, but a customer among many customers in a very active commercial space sector,” said Jim Bridenstine.
Donald Trump had attended the May 30 takeoff in person from Florida, and he welcomed the return of the two men on Sunday on Twitter.
His rival for the presidential election in November, Joe Biden, recalled that this privatization program had been launched by his predecessor, saying he was “proud of the role that President Obama and I played”.
The Dragon capsules are supposed to be reusable five to ten times: the copy returned Sunday appears in “very good condition”, according to Gwynne Shotwell, and will be repaired and inspected in a process of about four months, in order to fly again for the mission of the spring 2021, with Thomas Pesquet.
Elon Musk often says he dreams of colonizing Mars. No concrete program exists, but Gwynne Shotwell reiterated the credo on Sunday: Dragon’s mission is to be seen “as a stepping stone to do even tougher things, like the Artemis program and, of course, go to Mars.”