Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, their capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to close out an unprecedented test flight by Elon Musk's SpaceX company, the AP reports. It was the first splashdown by US astronauts in 45 years, 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. Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob 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. The capsule parachuted into the calm gulf waters off the coast of Pensacola.
"Welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX," the company's Mission Control said. The astronauts' ride home in the capsule dubbed Endeavour was fast, bumpy and hot, at least on the outside. The spacecraft went from a screaming orbital speed of 17,500 mph to 350 mph during atmospheric reentry, and finally to 15 mph at splashdown. Peak heating during descent was 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The anticipated top G forces felt by the crew: four to five times the force of Earth’s gravity. A SpaceX recovery ship with more than 40 staff, including doctors and nurses, moved in following splashdown, with two smaller, faster boats leading the way. It was the first NASA water landing since 1975, per the New York Times. (Read more NASA stories.)