The parachutes unfurled beautifully yesterday, billowing like jellyfish. After cutting through the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour, the capsule coasted to the water at a gentle 15. “Welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” an engineer in Mission Control told Hurley and Behnken when they touched down.
A cute remark, but also a sign of what’s to come. Hurley and Behnken are NASA astronauts, but on this mission, they were also SpaceX customers, their tickets covered by their employer. Because although NASA helped fund SpaceX’s development of the astronaut capsule, the agency doesn’t have exclusive rights to it, and SpaceX doesn’t plan to transport only astronauts. SpaceX is already in talks with the actor Tom Cruise about a trip to the ISS to film a movie. Cruise could probably shoot scenes right inside the Dragon capsule itself; the interior is futuristic-looking and sleek, all black and white, with a triptych of touch screens. Unlike NASA’s early cramped capsules and overstuffed control panels, there’s plenty of legroom. Since SpaceX’s founding, Musk has promised that traveling by a rocket would become as routine as flying on a plane. “Space is the new air,” he tweeted yesterday after Hurley and Behnken returned.
With the Dragon capsule’s first passengers back home safe, other customers might be lining up for their chance to fly. SpaceX plans to develop a fleet of the capsules. Astronauts will depend on them to commute to work, and wealthy individuals will use them to experience the world from a thrilling new perspective, any fears soothed by the fact that the product was tested on astronauts first. “We certainly feel comfortable that we’re on the right path to carry commercial passengers not too long from now,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, told reporters yesterday.
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On the way back down, those passengers will feel, as Hurley and Behnken did, gravity crushing them into their seats. They will see, outside the oval-shaped windows, a spectacular light show of radiant oranges and white—the glowing plasma all around them. As they descend, the outside of their spacecraft will heat to about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The surrounding plasma will become too hot for even radio waves to squiggle through, and for six terrifying minutes, the passengers won’t be able to talk with Mission Control.
Once through the atmosphere, the passengers will feel the jolt as the first set of parachutes deploys, and then the second. Like an airplane, the capsule will be stocked with barf bags, should they feel a little seasick as they wait to be scooped out of the water.
The journey to space and back will be automated; the passengers won’t need Hurley’s Marine Corps background, or Behnken’s Air Force experience, or two decades’ worth of NASA employment. They just need enough money to pay for the ride. These trips might, over time, become as routine as SpaceX rocket launches have. But flying to space will always be more harrowing than catching a flight. Clapping upon landing, considered cheesy on a plane, would be entirely warranted. The first person the passengers will see when the Dragon hatch opens will be a SpaceX doctor, making sure that they’re alive and well. Astronauts are trained to take mortal risks to advance science and national pride; customers may not be eager to pay so high a price.
As the waves of the gulf’s water lapped against the capsule yesterday, relief washed over Mission Control.
“I’m not very religious, but I prayed for that one,” Musk said after the splashdown, once Hurley and Behnken were reunited with their families.