NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken described in detail what it felt like and sounded like when SpaceX’s spacecraft came roaring back down to Earth for a successful splash down in the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend.
The astronauts said they were surprised by how similar the experience was to what SpaceX had prepared them for.
The astronauts answered questions from NASA’s Johnson Space Center on Tuesday for the first time since they landed back on their home planet.
Hurley and Behnken launched on the SpaceX Dragon capsule, nicknamed Endeavour, from Kennedy Space Center on May 30, arriving on the International Space Station the next day. The launch marked the first human spaceflight from Florida’s coast in nearly nine years.
After more than two months in space, the duo journeyed back to Earth in Dragon Endeavour in about 19 hours, sleeping overnight in the spacecraft before the splashdown.
The landing Sunday went smoothly by all accounts as the spacecraft slowly descended into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola all while Tropical Storm Isaias was barreling up Florida’s Atlantic coast. The event marked the first spacecraft splashdown in 45 years.
Behnken and Hurley both said the videos SpaceX showed them of what they would see and hear and when they would experience it were very accurate. The videos were recorded when the SpaceX Crew Dragon made its first trip to the ISS but without astronauts on board last year.
Behnken walked through every step describing the descent to Earth.
The first part of the de-orbit events happened when the spacecraft separated from the trunk while Dragon was still in low-Earth orbit.
“All the separation events from the trunk separation through the parachute firings were very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack,” Behnken said.
Next, as the Dragon began its deorbit burn the capsule began coming back down to Earth.
“As we kind of descended through the atmosphere, I personally was surprised at just how quickly all the events all transpired. It seemed like just a couple minutes later after the burn was complete, we could look out the windows and see the clouds rushing by at a much accelerated rate,” Behnken said.
Behnken said the two continued to talk to each other even while experiencing 4.2 G-forces, even cracking a few jokes.
While the spacecraft heat shield protects the capsule and the astronauts, Behnken described a “warming of the capsule on the inside,” as it descended through Earth’s atmosphere.
Behnken said next, before the parachutes deployed, they could feel Crew Dragon maneuver itself for re-entry using its thrusters.
“It came alive. It started to fire thrusters and keep us pointed in the appropriate direction, the atmosphere starts to make noise, you can hear that rumble outside the vehicle,” Behnken said. “It doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere.”
The astronauts could feel the parachutes, first the drogue chutes, then the main parachutes deploy as the spacecraft slowed from 350 mph to near 15 mph for splashdown.
Behnken said “it was a pretty significant jolt” when the parachutes deployed.
Hurley and Behnken both complimented the teams at SpaceX that built the spacecraft.
“The vehicle was rock solid right up until the nominal drogue (parachute) deploy,” Hurley said, later adding, “My compliments to SpaceX and the Commercial Crew Program, the vehicle performed exactly how it was supposed to.”
The launch, docking and splashdown marked the final test flight for SpaceX’s astronaut capsule before NASA can issue a certification for regular flights for its astronauts. The spacecraft will be thoroughly inspected and refurbished before it flies another astronaut crew as early as next year.
After landing in the Gulf, the astronauts had to wait about an hour before the hatch was opened and they were helped out. That wait was partially due to some curious boaters who approached despite the Coast Guard attempting to warn them off and then because of a potential fume hazard.
While they waited, the astronauts used the satellite phone to make a few calls. The called any numbers they could remember, according to Hurley, including the flight director in Houston.
“‘Hi, this is Bob and Doug, we’re in the ocean,‘” Hurley said they told the flight director.
The astronauts then called their wives, who were together in Houston, to tell them they had a safe landing.
“Having gone through this as a family member, you’re kind of helpless until you hear the voice of your loved one on the other end and this was a great chance to reassure them that we were in the water. We were OK. We were feeling good,” Hurley said.
After getting out of the spacecraft, the astronauts were taken by helicopter back to land. Then by jet back to Houston where they enjoyed some pizza, their first meal on Earth in more than 60 days.