As NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley careened to Earth inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on Sunday, the two said that the vehicle truly came “alive” when it plunged through Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule vibrated, jolted, and roared while the surrounding air heated up and scorched the outside of the vehicle — and the astronauts got it all on tape.
“I did record some audio of it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise,” Behnken said during a press conference following the landing. “It just continues to gain magnitude as you descend down through the atmosphere.”
Both Behnken and Hurley made history in late May when they launched to the International Space Station inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, becoming the first two people to fly in the vehicle and the first crew to travel to orbit in a privately made space capsule. The two named their capsule Endeavour, after the Space Shuttle that Behnken and Hurley both previously flew in. After launch, Behnken said the ride was pretty lively, arguing that the Crew Dragon lived up to its namesake. “Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit, and we were definitely driving or riding a Dragon all the way up,” he said while on station.
Two months after arriving at the ISS, the duo returned to Earth in the Crew Drago over the weekend. The capsule undocked from the space station on Saturday evening and slowly distanced itself from the ISS, before taking a harrowing dive through the planet’s atmosphere and then splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday afternoon.
Behnken noted that their trip was relatively smooth between undocking and the start of the dive, since he and Hurley were still in space, orbiting Earth. But the process of getting out of orbit became a vigorous one. Just an hour before landing, the Crew Dragon ejected its attached trunk — a large cylindrical piece of hardware that provided support during the mission. The capsule then fired its onboard thrusters, taking the vehicle out of orbit and setting it on course for Earth. Soon after, the Crew Dragon heated up immensely as it careened through the planet’s upper atmosphere, experiencing temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually, it deployed a series of parachutes to slow the capsule down so that it could touch down gently in the water off of Pensacola.
The astronauts could really feel each of those important steps, according to Behnken, who described them in vivid detail. “All the separation events — from the trunk separation through the parachute firings — were very much like getting hit in the back of a chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack,” he said. “And then you get some sort of a motion associated with that usually, pretty light for the trunk separation. But with the parachutes, it was a pretty significant jolt.”
The Crew Dragon splashed down at around 2:48PM ET on Sunday, and SpaceX recovery vessels quickly met up with the capsule to get Behnken and Hurley out of the water. Soon after, recreational boats swarmed the area, defying restrictions from the US Coast Guard in order to get a close view of the capsule. The astronauts said they weren’t really aware of them while inside the Crew Dragon. “[Atmospheric] reentry is a pretty demanding environment as you know with the different scorches on the vehicle, and the windows were not spared any of that,” Hurley said. “The look out the windows, you could basically tell that it was daylight but very little else. So we didn’t really see anything clearly out of the windows until the SpaceX recovery crews got near with 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 with the landing, thanks to all of the training and simulations they had done leading up to the mission. “My credit once again is to the folks at SpaceX — the production folks, the people that put Endeavour together and then certainly our training folks,” Hurley said at the press conference. “The mission went just like the simulators...from start to finish all the way — there was really no surprises.”
Now that Behnken and Hurley’s trip is over, NASA will spend the upcoming weeks looking at all of the data from this mission in order to certify the Crew Dragon for regular trips to and from the station. In fact, SpaceX is already slated to fly its next Crew Dragon in mid- to late-September, carrying a crew of four NASA astronauts to the ISS. Behnken and Hurley believe that the Crew Dragon is more than ready for those flights once that analysis is done.
“From a crew perspective, I think we’re perfectly comfortable saying that [the next crew] is ready when they finish the engineering and analysis associated with certification,” Behnken said. Hurley noted that SpaceX and NASA plan to sync up video of Crew Dragon’s launch and landing along with the crew’s audio from inside the capsule. “That will be passed on for multiple crews for them to use,” he said.
Now that they’re back on solid ground, the two hope to spend time with their families, but they say they’re honored to have been part of SpaceX’s first crewed mission to orbit. “I think for both of us, it still feels pretty surreal and I know that’s a little bit overused but I don’t know how else to describe it,” Hurley said. “One minute, you’re bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico and, you know, less than two days later you’re in a news conference.”