Space travel for rich, adventurous tourists is a step closer after Nasa astronauts dropped into the sea on Sunday after a successful pioneering SpaceX mission to the International Space Station. It was the first commercially crewed mission to the International Space Station.
The successful finish to the mission means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule – in which the astronauts were carried up to space, docked with the ISS, and then safely came back down – has passed the last of its tests, and will now go into regular use flying astronauts and eventually space tourists. The next mission could be a soon as October.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first American astronauts to splashdown in 45 years when they landed in the capsule made by Elon Musk’s space firm.
The arrival in the Gulf of Mexico after blazing through Earth’s atmosphere, and being carried safely down by parachutes, was the end of a mission that will revolutionise space travel in the US.
The mission began at the end of May with the first launch of astronauts from US soil in nearly a decade.
For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked autonomously to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Behnken and Hurley’s speed of 17,500 mph in orbit down to 350mph upon atmospheric re-entry, and eventually 15mph at splashdown.
During re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 1,900C while Behnken and Hurley, wearing SpaceX’s white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, experienced 29C.
The crew spent an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieved them for a helicopter trip ashore. There the duo underwent medical checks ahead of a flight to Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley.
The landmark mission, launched from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre, marked the first time the space agency launched humans from US soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011. Since then the United States has relied on Russia’s space program to launch its astronauts to the space station.
The last time an American crew splashed down into the ocean was in 1975, during an Apollo mission. Since then, astronauts have always landed on dry land.
The successful mission initiates a new era for the American space agency. All its human transport needs just above the Earth will in future be purchased from private companies, such as SpaceX.
The government agency says contracting out to service providers in this way will save it billions of dollars that can be diverted to getting astronauts to the Moon and Mars.
There is no stock price for investors to track SpaceX, but the company is valued at close to $40 billion, based on recent capital raises.
In the publicly traded arena, since the mission began, space stocks are up about 8 percent on average, a little better than the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 over the same span.
There has been a wide divergence, though. Virgin Galactic stock, for instance, is up about 32 percent. Aerojet Rocketdyne, which makes rocket engines for NASA, fell about 6 percent.
Tesla shares are up 71 percent since May 30. The company generated enormous buzz from the launch. Tesla Model X vehicles drove the astronauts to the rocket. And CEO Musk was able to do several interviews watched by tens of millions.
Tesla’s second-quarter earnings, which have crushed Wall Street expectations, are the biggest reason the stock has gained.