Nasa astronauts have dropped into the sea after a pioneering SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.
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 having blazed through Earth’s atmosphere, and being carried safely down by parachutes – brought an end to a mission that is set to change space travel in the US.
The mission began at the end of May, when the two astronauts took part in the first launch of astronauts from US soil in nearly a decade.
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.
“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to Planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX mission control said upon splashdown.
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 miles per hour in orbit down to 350 mph upon atmospheric reentry, and eventually 15 mph at splashdown.
During reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s outer shell withstood temperatures as high as 3,500 Fahrenheit while Behnken and Hurley, wearing SpaceX’s white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, experienced 85 Fahrenheit.
The crew will spend up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieve them for a helicopter trip ashore. There the duo will undergo medical checks ahead of a flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning.
The landmark mission, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the U.S. space agency launched humans from American 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.
Additional reporting by agencies