SpaceX's Crew Dragon Executes First Successful US Splashdown Since 1975

The event marked the first successful splashdown for U.S. astronauts since 1975.
Trevor English

Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken made a successful splashdown aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon on Sunday at 2:48 PM EDT — the first U.S.-led splashdown since July 1975 — after saying their final goodbyes to the International Space Station (ISS).

Their ship — the "Endeavour" — undocked from the International Space Station on Saturday evening, at approximately 7:34 PM EDT. After retrieval from the sea, they underwent a medical examination before finally returning home.


UPDATE August 2, 5:50 PM EDT: NASA Director wants fleet of Crew Dragons, astronauts living, working on Moon

Behnken and Hurley will undergo medical evaluations for the rest of the evening, but they are likely going to see their families soon. Before everyone left, the entire staff and mission crew were quarantined to protect against possible exposure to COVID-19 illness, but since they’re returning from the ISS (which is virus-free), no quarantine measures are needed for their return.

NASA Director Jim Bridenstine expressed hopes for a “fleet of Crew Dragons servicing not just the International Space Station, but also commercial space stations.” Bridenstine also said the future of crewed space flight is very bright, with NASA ready to play a major part in enabling this future.

Bridenstine also sent his compliments to SpaceX: “The reason we had success today is because SpaceX is so good at adapting” and improving upon failures.

Above all, Bridenstine wants to ensure the success of “another generation” of space explorers who live and work on the moon. In his mind, the Artemis mission will hopefully accomplish these goals.

UPDATE August 2, 5:35 PM EDT: Crew-1 mission to foster more research on ISS, NASA evaluates thruster leak

The Manager of the International Space Station Program noted that having a fourth crew member carried up to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon capsule made it possible to almost double research capabilities, in addition to cutting testing time in half.

While the fourth person won’t be dedicated exclusively to research and study, additional staffing aboard the ISS will allow everyone to improve their focus on these efforts.

NASA also noted how a sensor onboard the Crew Dragon indicated a nitrogen tetroxide leak from one of the thrusters during today's splashdown mission.

The small sensor indicating the leak was one of the main reasons the crew waited in the capsule so long before the hatch was opened. SpaceX and NASA wanted to make sure everything was completely safe, so this issue will see further investigation by the team.

UPDATE August 2, 5:15 PM EDT: Crew-1 mission crew excited go to ISS, Demo-2's habitability studies aboard ISS

The astronauts slated to crew the forthcoming Crew-1 mission for SpaceX is flight-certified, and say they're excited to examine all of the data collected from the Demo-2 mission, and determine how it may inform future missions. They’re excited to travel to the ISS, but note that right now it’s important to celebrate with Hurley, Behnken, and their families in regards to their safe return.

Joel Montalbano, Manager of the International Space Station Program, noted that the astronauts carried out habitability studies while the Crew Dragon was attached to the ISS. Most significantly, they tested different storage methods for materials to help them better understand the vehicle's most optimal operational setup for future missions.

UPDATE August 2, 5:05 PM EDT: Astronauts are healthy, beginning process of normalizing back to Earth

During the post-splashdown news conference with NASA and SpaceX, it was confirmed that both astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are safe and doing well since they returned to Earth hours ago.

However, the crew will need a few days or weeks to "normalize" their bodies and adapt to life on Earth. While they recover, health professionals will remain vigilant — monitoring the astronauts for any possible complications.

As for the Crew Dragon capsule itself, SpaceX is now beginning the process of refurbishing the craft for use in the Crew-2 mission, which will launch sometime next year. They estimate that the refurbishing process will take roughly four months.

UPDATE August 2, 5:00 PM EDT: NASA's post-splashdown news conference

NASA streamed a video on YouTube after SpaceX's Crew Dragon successfully splashed down with the two astronauts. As the first U.S. splashdown since July 1975, there's much to discuss.

UPDATE August 2, 4:00 PM EDT: Hatch is open, astronauts are safe

The hatch to the Crew Dragon capsule was successfully opened and the astronauts were unbuckled from their seats inside of the capsule before slowly exiting the Crew Dragon vehicle. Behnken thanked the SpaceX team and the Endeavour spacecraft for a safe and successful mission.

UPDATE August 2, 3:45 PM EDT: Astronauts remain sitting in Crew Dragon due to purge delay

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are still sitting in the Crew Dragon capsule as crews outside work to detect and find the source of a few different propellant gases and chemicals. The crew completed a purge of all of the systems and a few more tests are currently being completed to make sure that opening the hatch is the proper next step.

UPDATE August 2, 3:18 PM EDT: Crew Dragon capsule now aboard the recovery ship

The crew Dragon capsule was recovered by Go Navigator and it now sits aboard the ship. Everything has gone according to plan for this historic splashdown and recovery. We now await for the Crew Dragon capsule to be opened up, after which astronauts Bob and Doug will exit the craft. 

However, before they can, a doctor will enter the craft to perform a check-up. After the all-clear from that doctor and (of course) the astronauts, the crew can then exit — making their way to a medical area onboard the recovery ship for a more thorough examination.

UPDATE August 2, 2:57 PM EDT: Official personnel start preparing capsule for final recovery

Recovery personnel on small “fast boats” have started approaching the now-floating Crew Dragon capsule. The first of the recovery crew will be completing a “sniff test” to make sure that the air surrounding the capsule isn’t filled with dangerous chemicals from the onboard propellants and heat shields.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also confirmed the splashdown with a tweet, which read: "Dragon is stable in water."

Once complete, the crew will install rigging equipment onto the capsule so that the recovery ship, Go Navigator, can pull the capsule aboard.

UPDATE August 2, 2:48 PM EDT: Crew Dragon completes successful splashdown

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have safely splashed-down in the Gulf of Mexico. This marks the completion of their 19-hour return journey from the ISS.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Splashdown
The Crew Dragon made a successful splashdown. Source: Eva Fox / Twitter

UPDATE August 2, 2:45 PM EDT: Parachutes are successfully deployed

Communication has been reacquired with the astronauts, signalling that they have completed the most violent phase of re-entry. We are now getting the first visuals of the craft on its way back to the Gulf.

The drogue chutes deployed successfully, which slowed the vehicle down enough for the main parachutes to deploy. The main chutes also deployed successfully, and the astronauts are now slowly drifting down to the gulf with roughly 2 minutes until splashdown.

UPDATE August 2, 2:37 PM EDT: Crew Dragon enters blackout period

The Crew Dragon capsule has entered its blackout period, which is the point at which the craft is hurtling through the atmosphere, causing plasma to build-up on the outside of the craft. This plasma interferes with the communications capabilities of the astronauts. 

After the blackout period, the parachutes will deploy, carrying the dragon down to the surface of the Gulf.

UPDATE August 2, 2:30 PM EDT: Crew Dragon re-entry preparations complete, 20 minutes to splashdown

Crew entry preparations are complete and we are now 20 minutes away from final splashdown. There will be a 6-minute communications blackout during the re-entry process due to the excess buildup of plasma on the outside of the craft which will interfere with the communications capabilities of the Dragon capsule. 

The weather currently looks perfect for a splashdown, and the recovery craft, “Go Navigator," is in position — ready to retrieve the astronauts. According to NASA and SpaceX, the astronauts will exit the capsule “within an hour” of splashdown. They also have a satellite phone on-board the spacecraft, in case they need to communicate in the event of any other comms failure.

UPDATE August 2, 2:10 PM EDT: Deorbit burn complete, nose cone sealed, ready for re-entry

The deorbit burn has been completed, which means the capsule and the astronauts will must execute the return to Earth today. As of writing, the nose cone is closing, which will place the Dragon in its final trajectory for re-entry.

The vehicle has also initiated the nitrox purge, which is a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen — essentially atmospheric air. This will help to cool the crew while the craft re-enters the atmosphere.

Like we mentioned before, the outside of the craft will experience temperatures of 3000ºF (1650ºC), but Bob and Doug won’t experience anything more than 85ºF (29ºC) in the capsule, thanks to both the heat-shield and the cooled nitrox gas.

UPDATE August 2, 1:52 PM EDT: Trunk and claw assembly jettisoned, deorbit burn begins

The trunk attached to the Crew Dragon capsule was successfully jettisoned at 1:52 PM EDT. It will now fall to the Earth and burn up completely in the atmosphere. The dragon now begins a deorbit burn at 1:57 PM EDT, which will firmly point the craft on a trajectory with the Earth, meaning that the astronauts can no longer back out of re-entry today. The burn will last roughly 11.5 minutes. 

With the jettison of the trunk and claw assembly, the heat shield of the Dragon capsule is fully exposed and ready to protect the astronauts from the 3000ºF (1650ºC) temperatures the craft will experience on the outside during re-entry.

UPDATE August 2, 1:25 PM EDT: 'Coming in hot,' tweets Elon Musk

Elon Musk retweeted a SpaceX tweet about the re-entry process and captioned it “coming in hot.” This was a word about the estimated temperatures that the Dragon capsule will reach upon re-entry. According to SpaceX, the surface will reach above 3000ºF (1650ºC), but the heat shield on the capsule will keep the internal temperature at or below 85º (29ºC). 

The crew is now roughly an hour and a half before scheduled splashdown. We’re also roughly 30 minutes out from the beginning of the final preparations for splashdown. This will begin with the trunk separation from the craft and will be followed by a deorbit burn, which will solidify their final splashdown execution.

UPDATE August 2, 1:10 PM EDT: Crew Dragon capsule prepares for re-entry, astronaut spacesuit leak check

The Dragon capsule is on its last lap around the Earth before it splashes down, which will take about 90 minutes. Leak checks for the astronauts’ suits have also been completed with no issues, with all indicators showing "nominal."

At this point, all of the final checks and preparations have been completed with no issue. The recovery ship, Go Navigator, has also reached its final position in the Gulf off the coast of Florida. Ground control reports that the water at the splashdown location “looks like glass” and is otherwise perfect conditions for recovery and landing.

The next step in the process will be the "go, no go" confirmation, which will be the final deciding factor of whether the crew executes a splashdown attempt today. So far, all signals indicate that they will.

UPDATE August 2, 12:40 PM EDT: Crew Dragon astronauts' life support, communications, both 'go' 

The crew is now suited up and hooked up to their life support systems in the Crew Dragon. Ground control and the astronauts have also completed communication checks successfully. Now that the suits are on the astronauts, a leak check is being conducted to make sure that there are no faulty connections or unzipped zippers that could cause failure down the line.

This is the only time that the suits will be pressurized unless something goes wrong in the mission. Under normal conditions, the suits will stay unpressurized, but if something goes wrong with the pressurization of the Crew Dragon capsule, then the suits can be pressurized in order to keep the crew alive.

UPDATE August 2, 12:20 PM EDT: NASA updates milestones for Crew Dragon return

NASA updated approximate times for the next milestones for the Crew Dragon capsule, and the two astronauts inside, as they proceed with re-entry. At roughly 1:51 EDT, the trunk of the Crew Dragon will separate from the capsule, which is necessary to expose the heat shield on the base of the capsule. The trunk itself is non-recoverable and will fall through the atmosphere, completely burning up in the process.

Following the trunk separation, at 1:56 PM EDT, the Crew Dragon will begin a deorbit burn, which is used to insert the vehicle into a final re-entry trajectory. Lasting roughly 11 minutes, the burn will end at 2:08 PM EDT, and at 2:11 PM EDT, the Nosecone of the dragon will close and lock, which protects the forward hatch of the capsule.

Once the cone is closed, the capsule will begin re-entry and there will be a 6-minute communications blackout due to buildup of plasma on the outside of the craft.

The parachutes will then deploy at 2:44 PM EDT, signaling that the craft has successfully made it through the atmosphere. After 4 minutes have elapsed, the Crew Dragon will splashdown just off the coast of Pensacola at 2:48 PM EDT.

Once in the water, the Crew Dragon recovery vessel, named “Go Navigator,” will recover the capsule and the astronauts inside. The Go Navigator has an identical sister craft “Go Searcher,” which is used for east-coast recoveries.

UPDATE August 2, 12:03 PM EDT: Crew Dragon’s return ‘on track’, says Elon Musk

SpaceX Elon Musk tweeted that splashdown is on schedule for 2:48 PM EDT despite a looming tropical storm in the Gulf. Weather experts remain a "go" for the scheduled splashdown and astronauts Bob Benkhen and Doug Hurley are making final preparations for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

"Crew Dragon's flight back to Earth with @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug remains on track; targeting splashdown off the coast of Pensacola, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico at 2:48 p.m. EDT today," wrote Musk. This was the first splashdown of an American craft since the last Apollo-Soyuz splashdown in July 1975.

"It's been a great two months, and we appreciate all you've done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight," Hurley said to commander Chris Cassidy. "We look forward to splashdown tomorrow."

The event marked the first U.S.-led mission's return to Earth for U.S. astronauts since 2011. It also marks the first entry, descent, and landing of a Crew Dragon spacecraft. "Endeavour" is a spaceship built and operated by SpaceX with about $2.7 billion in government funding.

The mission called Demo-2 is SpaceX's second experimental flight of the vehicle, and it is helping NASA certify SpaceX’s crew transportation system for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the ISS.

The mission's descent was threatened by bad weather. Up to 6 hours before undocking, NASA continuously monitored Tropical Storm Isaias and evaluated its possible weather impact around the Florida peninsula, as well as in the potential splashdown areas in the Gulf of Mexico and along the state’s Atlantic coast. 

The Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying Hurley and Behnken launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30. It arrived at the orbital space laboratory the following day.

While there, the astronauts helped conduct many space experiments and studies, and brought supplies to the ISS with them. But all good things must come to an end: The astronauts eventually had to return home.


Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that the last U.S. splashdown of a crewed space mission happened in July 2011. This is incorrect; the last splashdown of American astronauts happened at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975. IE regrets this error.

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