FLORIDA — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule off the coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon, but it wasn't in the Atlantic as originally planned.

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With Isaias headed up the east coast of the Florida peninsula, the astronauts splashed down off the coast near Pensacola in the placid Gulf of Mexico.

It marked the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit. The return clears the way for another SpaceX crew launch as early as next month and possible tourist flights next year. It also marked the firsr splashdown in the Gulf.

Test pilots Hurley and Behnken rode the SpaceX Dragon capsule back to Earth less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida. Unlike Florida's Atlantic coast, already feeling the effects of Isaias, the waves and wind were calm near Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

“Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” the company’s Mission Control said.

The astronauts’ ride home in the capsule said Endeavour was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside.

The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph (28,000 kph) to 350 mph (560 kph) during atmospheric reentry, and finally to 15 mph (24 kph) at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius). The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew: four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity.

The Crew Dragon capsule, called Endeavour by the crew, undocked and separated from the space station Saturday night to begin its return to Earth and ended its two-month mission in orbit. Soon afterward, NASA confirmed that the second departure burn was a success, and Crew Dragon had moved below and in front of the space station.

Hurley called the expedition "incredible" in a tweet after the departure.


A SpaceX recovery ship with more than 40 staff, including doctors and nurses, moved in quickly following splashdown and lifted the 15-foot capsule onto its deck. Two smaller, faster boats arrived first at the capsule while it was slowly bobbing upright in the water. To keep the returning astronauts safe in the pandemic, the recovery crew quarantined for two weeks and were tested for the coronavirus.

A flight surgeon was the first to look into the capsule once the hatch was pulled open. Both emerged from the capsule on a stretcher, not unexpected because the recovery crew wants to protect them from a fall because their inner ears and legs have to readjust after being in space for 63 days. The first astronaut to emerge gave a thumbs-up signal. After medical exams, the astronauts were expected to fly home to Houston.

SpaceX needs six weeks to inspect the capsule before launching the next crew around the end of September. This next mission of four astronauts will spend a full six months aboard the space station. Hurley and Behnken’s capsule will be refurbished for another flight next spring. A Houston company run by a former NASA official, meanwhile, has partnered with SpaceX to send three customers to the space station in fall 2021.

The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific, the scene of most splashdowns, to end a joint U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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