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NASA astronauts brought home

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SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour’s four main parachutes gently floated down to the water after the vessel landed off the coast of Pensacola at 2:48pm (1848 GMT). NASA/AFP

NASA astronauts brought home

The US’ first crewed spaceship to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in nearly a decade returned safely to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The successful mission, carried out jointly by SpaceX and NASA, demonstrated that the US once again can send its astronauts to space and bring them back.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour’s four main parachutes gently floated down to the water after the vessel landed off the coast of Pensacola at 2:48pm (1848 GMT).

It was the first water landing for a crewed US spaceship since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Pilot Doug Hurley, one of two astronauts on board along with Commander Bob Behnken, said: “It’s truly our honour and privilege.

“On behalf of the NASA and SpaceX teams, welcome back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” replied SpaceX’s Mike Heiman, to laughter in the control room.

Several civilian boats swarmed the landing zone as a recovery ship sped to the scorched capsule and brought it aboard.

The hatch opening was briefly delayed as a team worked to stop a leak of rocket fuel vapour.

Around an hour after splashdown, the astronauts exited the capsule and now await a helicopter ride to shore, followed by a plane trip to Houston where they will re-unite with their families.

US President Donald Trump – who had travelled to Florida for the capsule’s launch two months ago – hailed its safe return.

“Thank you to all!” he tweeted. “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission.”

The US has had to rely on Russia for rides to space since the last Space Shuttle flew in 2011.

Tropical Storm Isaias, which had scuppered Endeavour’s original landing site in the Atlantic, was nearing Florida’s east coast on Sunday, hundreds of kilometres away.

The mission is also a major win for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was founded in only 2002 but has leap-frogged its way past Boeing, its main competitor in the commercial space race.

The US has paid the two companies a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts, though aerospace giant Boeing’s efforts have badly floundered.

The Crew Dragon capsule performed several precise procedures to return home safely.

First, it jettisoned its “trunk” that contains its power, heat and other systems, which burned up in the atmosphere.

Endeavour then fired its thrusters to manoeuvre itself into the proper orbit and trajectory for splashdown.

As it re-entered the atmosphere at a speed of around 28,000km/h, it experienced temperatures of 1900 degrees Celsius.

This caused a brief but expected communications blackout.

Endeavour then deployed two sets of parachutes on its descent, bringing its speed down to a mere 24km/h as it hit the ocean.

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