In recent years, as SpaceX launched rocket after rocket without incident, liftoff became the company’s second-most-impressive feat. The truly dazzling moment came after the rocket had left the ground, and its booster—or, sometimes, two boosters—reversed course high up in the air, flipped around, and glided back down, landing upright on the ground or a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean, ready to be refurbished and used again. What once seemed like science fiction has become a SpaceX signature.
From now on, SpaceX has claim to another enduring image of the new era in spaceflight: a quartet of parachutes in the sky over open water, with a capsule dangling below, delivering passengers safely home from space.
This is how two NASA astronauts returned to Earth Sunday afternoon after spending more than two months living and working on the International Space Station. The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in still waters in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Florida. Its passengers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, bobbed inside the capsule—which was so charred from the fiery fall through the atmosphere that it looked more like a toasted marshmallow—until recovery ships arrived and tugged them to safety.
The last time NASA astronauts made a watery return like this was in 1975, at the end of the Apollo era, after a rendezvous with Soviet cosmonauts high above Earth. American spaceflight has changed so much since then—the propulsion systems that power the missions are more sophisticated, the people who fly them are more likely to be women, and competition among spacefaring countries has become friendlier. Perhaps one of the most significant changes has to do with who is doing the job of taking people to space and back. NASA doesn’t fly its own astronauts anymore. It hires companies such as SpaceX to do it instead.
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This was SpaceX’s first attempt to bring astronauts to and from the ISS. The company has mastered the art of launching dozens of satellites and even a Tesla into space, but, before this weekend, it had returned a capsule to Earth only once, last year, and with a mannequin onboard, not two men. Though launches get the most attention, returns are more dangerous, and to keep the passengers alive, SpaceX had to perfect a feature that has tormented the space industry for decades: parachutes.
The successful splashdown marks the end of a historic mission nearly a decade in the making. NASA, the agency that put men on the moon half a century ago, had never given so much responsibility to one of its contractors before. But NASA needed SpaceX. After the space-shuttle program had ended in 2011 under the weight of cost and safety concerns, the only way for NASA astronauts to reach the ISS was to fly shoulder to shoulder with Russian cosmonauts from Kazakhstan.
Boeing, the other company that NASA hired to develop an astronaut-transportation system, seemed like a more suitable match; it had worked with NASA for decades, even helped build the ISS. But SpaceX was ready first, and Boeing had botched an attempt to reach the space station last year in an uncrewed test flight.
SpaceX’s launch day, in late May, was unlike any other at Cape Canaveral. NASA, accustomed to running the show, watched over SpaceX’s shoulder instead. Hurley and Behnken were helped into their spacesuits by SpaceX workers, driven to the launchpad in a Tesla, and lifted off in a SpaceX rocket. All the way to the ISS, they listened to the steady voice of an engineer at Mission Control, based not in Houston, but in Hawthorne, California, the home of SpaceX headquarters.
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For 30 years, NASA flew astronauts on the space shuttles, winged spacecraft that landed on Earth like airplanes on a runway. The Russian astronaut capsule, the Soyuz, uses parachutes for its desert landings, but the SpaceX capsule, and other next-generation vehicles, are bigger. SpaceX and Boeing have both experienced trouble during parachute tests, and so has NASA, on its own spacecraft projects. Engineers had relied on Apollo-era parameters for parachute technology before they realized that the standards set by their predecessors weren’t going to work. SpaceX overhauled its parachute design last year and ran dozens of tests. “Parachutes, they look easy, but they are definitely not easy,” Musk said in 2019. “We’ve had so many engineers quit over the parachutes.”
The parachutes unfurled beautifully yesterday, billowing like jellyfish. After cutting through the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour, the capsule coasted to the water at a gentle 15. “Welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” an engineer in Mission Control told Hurley and Behnken when they touched down.
A cute remark, but also a sign of what’s to come. Hurley and Behnken are NASA astronauts, but on this mission, they were also SpaceX customers, their tickets covered by their employer. Because although NASA helped fund SpaceX’s development of the astronaut capsule, the agency doesn’t have exclusive rights to it, and SpaceX doesn’t plan to transport only astronauts. SpaceX is already in talks with the actor Tom Cruise about a trip to the ISS to film a movie. Cruise could probably shoot scenes right inside the Dragon capsule itself; the interior is futuristic-looking and sleek, all black and white, with a triptych of touch screens. Unlike NASA’s early cramped capsules and overstuffed control panels, there’s plenty of legroom. Since SpaceX’s founding, Musk has promised that traveling by a rocket would become as routine as flying on a plane. “Space is the new air,” he tweeted yesterday after Hurley and Behnken returned.
With the Dragon capsule’s first passengers back home safe, other customers might be lining up for their chance to fly. SpaceX plans to develop a fleet of the capsules. Astronauts will depend on them to commute to work, and wealthy individuals will use them to experience the world from a thrilling new perspective, any fears soothed by the fact that the product was tested on astronauts first. “We certainly feel comfortable that we’re on the right path to carry commercial passengers not too long from now,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, told reporters yesterday.
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On the way back down, those passengers will feel, as Hurley and Behnken did, gravity crushing them into their seats. They will see, outside the oval-shaped windows, a spectacular light show of radiant oranges and white—the glowing plasma all around them. As they descend, the outside of their spacecraft will heat to about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The surrounding plasma will become too hot for even radio waves to squiggle through, and for six terrifying minutes, the passengers won’t be able to talk with Mission Control.
Once through the atmosphere, the passengers will feel the jolt as the first set of parachutes deploys, and then the second. Like an airplane, the capsule will be stocked with barf bags, should they feel a little seasick as they wait to be scooped out of the water.
The journey to space and back will be automated; the passengers won’t need Hurley’s Marine Corps background, or Behnken’s Air Force experience, or two decades’ worth of NASA employment. They just need enough money to pay for the ride. These trips might, over time, become as routine as SpaceX rocket launches have. But flying to space will always be more harrowing than catching a flight. Clapping upon landing, considered cheesy on a plane, would be entirely warranted. The first person the passengers will see when the Dragon hatch opens will be a SpaceX doctor, making sure that they’re alive and well. Astronauts are trained to take mortal risks to advance science and national pride; customers may not be eager to pay so high a price.
As the waves of the gulf’s water lapped against the capsule yesterday, relief washed over Mission Control.
“I’m not very religious, but I prayed for that one,” Musk said after the splashdown, once Hurley and Behnken were reunited with their families.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.