The U.S. government’s NASA and the commercial space company named SpaceX made history by flying two astronauts on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 30th and returning them to Earth this morning. It happened because NASA had ended its decades-old Space Shuttle program back in 2011. They then invited and contracted with American commercial space companies to do the flying to space and back. But before that could happen, NASA contracted with Russia by flying all of its American astronauts and cargo shipments to the ISS from Russia in Russian rockets.
Now, that commercial relationship with Russia has ended, thanks to Elon Musk (also CEO of Tesla) and his SpaceX company. Musk had started SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of flying American cargo and astronauts into space, with the ultimate goal of flying them to Mars. NASA’s plan is to work with SpaceX and perhaps other companies to fly to the moon by 2024, and perfect flight in order to use the moon as a launch pad for going to Mars in the year 2035. So, today’s historic journey is part of accomplishing this whole plan. SpaceX thereby became today the first commercial space company in the world to launch astronauts into Earth orbit and return them safely to Earth.
Today, the cone-shaped space capsule named Dragon Encounter, which was carrying American astronauts Bob Behnken and Commander Doug Hurley, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico three miles off the Pensacola, Florida, coast near its scheduled time, at 11:48 AM Pacific Time this morning. Their descent from the ISS, where they had been for 54 days, lasted 19 hours. (They had flown on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket to ISS on May 30th.) Once Dragon left ISS, it traveled in Earth orbit for a while at 17,500 miles per hour, making multiple fuel “burns” to angle the aircraft properly, before making its descent into Earth’s atmosphere. The shield tiles protecting the outside of the capsule had heated up to a maximum of about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. When the white capsule splashed down and was recovered, viewers could see on the live telecast that it had some serious, black-colored scorch marks all around, which is normal. The Dragon aircraft will be re-used in later space flights. SpaceX is the first entity to be able to do this worldwide.
Even though a hurricane was threatening the east coast of Florida today, where the Falcon had launched these two astronauts from Kennedy Space Center, thus on the other side of the elongated Florida, everything about Dragon’s return journey today went off without a hitch.
This was the first time American astronauts had splashed down in the ocean since 1975. They used a capsule instead of a plane to return to earth because Elon Musk wanted it to serve as practice for going to Mars. On that future, planned trip, a plane cannot be used due to such light atmosphere, thus a space capsule will be necessary, probably with the use of parachutes.
Elon Musk surprisingly said that one of the biggest problems in accomplishing this mission was to get the four parachutes to work precisely right. They were deployed at 6,000 feet from the water. With Dragon then flying at 400 miles per hour due to the atmosphere slowing it down, the parachutes quickly slowed the aircraft down more so that it splashed into the water while flying only 16 miles per hour. The astronauts had been strapped into their seats the entire 19 hour flight. And they remained in their seats for another hour while certain maneuvers were done by outside personnel.
First of all, two fast boats motored toward the aircraft to remove the parachutes after their lines were cut that had been tethered to the Dragon. In about 30 minutes after splashdown, the Go Navigator Recovery Ship hoisted the Dragon capsule out of the water by means of its hydraulic lift. But another 30 minutes had to pass as workers constantly tested the outside of the aircraft until Nitro Tetra Dioxide fumes permeating from the space shields were at acceptable levels. The aircraft’s side hatch door was then lifted, and the two astronauts were slid out of the capsule on a stretcher. They were not walking because they would have been wobbly for a while as they adjusted to Earth’s gravity.
Behnken and Hurley were then taken to a medical facility on the Navigator to check their health, which was fine. A helicopter then flew them to the Pensacola Naval Air Station. From there, they were flown in a NASA plane to Houston, specifically to Ellington Air Force base.
There are several things about much of this that remind me of some of my life experiences. For instance, I played many years in the Pensacola Open golf tournament on the PGA Tour. I would often drive by the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Sometimes, the Blue Angels would fly their four jets with maneuvers over the golf course during our tournament as a demonstration.
For over 25 years, I lived about three miles from Ellington Field, which belonged to the Air Force. It is now called Ellington Joint Reserve Base. In fact, my Air Force reserve unit met there. Thus, for nearly five years I attended monthly weekend reserve meetings at Ellington Field. This base is about four miles north of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I knew several astronauts, including Charlie Duke and Jack Lousma. Lots of astronauts lived within a few miles of where I lived, in Friendswood, Texas, a suburb of Houston that was about five miles from the Johnson Space Center.
Last of all, comedian Bob Hope nicknamed me “the pro from moon” due to my unusual name.
But I’m also writing about space in some of my books. I will be doing that, God willing, in my next Still Here book, Book Four, and in Book Seven.
This space mission represents the beginning of a new era in American space missions. Already, the next NASA/SpaceX flight is scheduled for next month, in September.
Finally, this space capsule’s Dragon name is a bit eery for me. The Bible’s book of Revelation says, “And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12.7-9). Christians generally have been taught that this happened in the past. I don’t think so; rather, it is yet to happen near the end of this present age. I am writing about this in one of my next books. I believe it will be a thriller.