NASA astronaut Robert Behnken gives a thumbs up after egressing the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after he and NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, US, on August 2, 2020. (NASA/Handout via REUTERS /Bill Ingalls)
US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, home two days from a landmark mission as NASA's first crew to fly a privately built vehicle into orbit, recounted on Tuesday the loud, jarring ride they experienced through Earth's atmosphere before a safe landing at sea.
Their splash-down on Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida - a mode of return for human spaceflight last used by NASA 45 years ago - capped the first launch of astronauts from US soil in nine years.
At a news conference from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, their first extensive public remarks since coming home, Behnken, 50, and Hurley, 53, described the tense final moments of their 64-day journey.
The duo endured tremendous, jolting forces as the SpaceX-built Crew Dragon, an acorn-shaped vehicle that had carried them to the International Space Station, fired rocket thrusters to slow its descent for re-entry, then pierced the outer atmosphere.
"It came alive," Behnken told reporters of the nearly 12-minute thruster burn. "It doesn't sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere."
As the capsule streaked deeper through the sky, atmospheric friction scorched the protective heat shield of the plunging Crew Dragon to 3,500 Fahrenheit (1,927 Celsius), slowing its rate of descent to 350 mph (563 kph).
At that point, the first of two sets of parachutes were deployed, abruptly breaking the capsule's speed further - an interval that felt "very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat," Behnken recalled.
"It was a pretty significant jolt," he said.
The second set of chutes gradually slowed the capsule to a gentle 15-mph rate of descent for a splash-down that ended what Hurley called a "flawless" mission.
Minutes later, recovery teams dispatched by SpaceX, the California-based rocket company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, hoisted the capsule onto a boat. Behnken and Hurley where then flown by helicopter to shore to catch a private flight to Houston.
The two were launched to the International Space Station from Florida on May 31, embarking on a two-month journey to prove the Crew Dragon capsule safe for transporting humans to and from space.
While bobbing in the water just after splash-down awaiting recovery teams, Hurley said they completed one final test objective for the mission: "making prank satellite phone calls to whoever we can get a hold of."
"There was a real reason for it," Hurley said, in all seriousness, explaining that they needed to prove they could contact mission control using a sat-phone in case the crew landed from space in an unexpected part of the ocean.
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