When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley raced to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on Sunday, the two said that the vehicle had really “come alive” when it crashed through the atmosphere. The capsule vibrated, jerked, and roared as the ambient air warmed and scorched the outside of the vehicle – and the astronauts taped everything.
“I recorded some audio from it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the trains that emanate from the engines and the atmospheric noise, ”said Behnken during a press conference after landing. “It grows in size as you descend through the atmosphere.”
Both Behnken and Hurley made history in late May when they launched into the international space station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. They were the first two people to fly in the vehicle and the first crew to travel into orbit in a privately made space capsule. The two named their capsule Endeavor after the space shuttle into which Behnken and Hurley had previously flown. After the launch, Behnken said the trip was fairly lively and argued that the Crew Dragon had lived up to its namesake. “Dragon puffed and puffed all the way into orbit, and we definitely drove or rode a kite to the top,” he said on the station.
Two months after arriving on the ISS, the duo returned to Earth in the Drago crew at the weekend. The capsule detached from the space station on Saturday night and slowly distanced itself from the ISS before making a harrowing dive through the planet’s atmosphere and splashing in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday afternoon.
Behnken noted that their journey between undocking and the start of the dive was relatively smooth since he and Hurley were still in space and orbiting the Earth. But the process of getting out of orbit got violent. Just an hour before landing, the Crew Dragon threw out its attached trunk – a large cylindrical piece of hardware that provided support during the mission. The capsule then fired its onboard thrusters, took the vehicle out of orbit and set it on course for Earth. Soon afterwards, the Crew Dragon warmed immensely as it moved through the planet’s upper atmosphere and experienced temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, it used a number of parachutes to slow the capsule down so that it could land gently in the water of Pensacola.
The astronauts could Really Feel each of these important steps, said Behnken, who described them in detail. “All the separation events – from trunk separation to parachute shots – were very similar to hitting the back of a chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack,” he said. “And then you get some kind of movement that is usually associated with it, quite easily for trunk separation. But with the parachutes, it was a pretty significant jerk. “
The Crew Dragon splashed down around 2:48 p.m. ET on Sunday, and SpaceX recovery ships quickly hit the capsule to get Behnken and Hurley out of the water. Soon after, pleasure boats swarmed through the area, defying the U.S. Coast Guard’s restrictions on taking a close look at the capsule. The astronauts said they didn’t really notice them in the Crew Dragon. “[Atmospheric] Re-entry is a pretty demanding environment, as you know, with the various burns on the vehicle, and the windows have not been spared, ”said Hurley. “When looking out of the windows you could basically see that it was daylight, but very little else. So we didn’t see anything really clearly out of the windows until the SpaceX salvage teams approached the fast boats, and then we can see a head or two out there. “
Overall, the two said that there were really no big surprises when landing, thanks to all the training and simulations they had done prior to the mission. “My credit goes back to the people at SpaceX – the production people, the people who put Endeavor together, and then certainly our training people,” said Hurley at the press conference. “The mission was just like the simulators … from start to finish – there were really no surprises.”
After Behnken and Hurley’s journey is over, NASA will review all of the data from this mission in the coming weeks to certify the Crew Dragon for regular trips to and from the station. SpaceX is scheduled to fly its next Crew Dragon by mid to late September and bring a crew of four NASA astronauts to the ISS. Behnken and Hurley believe that Crew Dragon is more than ready for these flights after completing this analysis.
“From the crew’s point of view, we feel very comfortable when we say that [the next crew] is ready when they have completed the engineering and analysis associated with the certification, ”said Behnken. Hurley noted that SpaceX and NASA plan to synchronize the video of Crew Dragon’s takeoff and landing along with the crew’s audio out of the capsule. “This will be passed on to several crews so that they can use it,” he said.
Now that they’re back on solid ground, the two hope to spend time with their families, but they say they feel honored to have been part of SpaceX’s first manned mission in orbit. “I think it still feels pretty surreal to both of us and I know it’s a bit overused, but I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Hurley. “One minute, you’re rocking in the Gulf of Mexico and, you know, less than two days later you’re in a press conference.”