SpaceX returns astronauts to earth

SpaceX returned two astronauts to earth on Sunday in the final stages of a historic mission it began nine weeks ago that could open the way to the full commercialisation of human space flight.

The test mission, undertaken with Nasa, took astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the first time a private company had taken humans into space.

The two returned to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico at 2.48pm local time. As the capsule bobbed on a calm ocean, they were radioed a greeting familiar to plane passengers everywhere: “Welcome back to planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX.”

Elon Musk’s private space company is hoping to follow a successful test by sending three American astronauts to the ISS on the first fully commercial space flight before the end of September, with Nasa paying a fee for each seat.

It has also announced a second mission — including one Japanese and one European among the four astronauts — to take place early next year.

Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico © Getty Images

The splashdown on Sunday marks the culmination of a plan first hatched a decade ago. The US decided to replace the Space Shuttle with a new type of space programme under which private companies would be paid a fixed price to develop spacecraft for human flight, with future missions sold on a commercial basis.

The arrangement, which replaced the traditional “cost-plus” contracts under which space exploration has operated, meant that delays and cost-overruns had to be absorbed by the companies.

Boeing and SpaceX were later picked to run parallel development programmes, effectively pitting a company with years of experience of working on Nasa space missions against a commercial upstart that only flew its first rocket to orbit in 2010.

Late last year Boeing failed a test designed to send an unmanned capsule to the ISS, as a prelude to sending humans. Its spacecraft failed to reach its planned orbit, and Nasa has recommended 80 improvements before a repeat of the test, which is expected before the end of the year. Boeing said in January that the extra flight would cost it $410m.