NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley completed a fiery, high-speed journey back from the International Space Station on Sunday, splashing down in calm Gulf of Mexico waters off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., hundreds of miles from a churning Tropical Storm Isaias in the Atlantic in a triumphal denouement to a historic mission.
It was the first time in the 59-year history of crewed American space travel that astronauts had used the Gulf as a landing site, adding to other firsts that marked a new chapter in NASA’s human spaceflight program: the first launch of American astronauts to orbit from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 and the first launch into orbit of humans on vehicles owned and operated by a private company.
For days, NASA and SpaceX had kept a close eye on Isaias as it developed from tropical storm to hurricane and back again to tropical storm. But they always held the possibility of a Gulf landing in their pocket should the weather in the Atlantic prove unfavorable. NASA and SpaceX had designated seven potential landing targets, four of them in the Gulf, and SpaceX had positioned recovery craft in both locations for any eventuality.
NASA and SpaceX said they also took extra precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic. The crews on the ship were tested and quarantined, and everyone was to be wearing masks.