NASA astronaut Bob Behnken has given a fascinating account of what it was like to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Behnken and fellow astronaut Doug Hurley returned from the International Space Station on Sunday, August 2, at the end of a 64-day mission that saw the first astronauts ride inside the Crew Dragon, and which also marked the first launch and landing in U.S. territory since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
In an appearance on NASA TV on Tuesday, Behnken described the re-entry — the most precarious part of the journey when the most stress is placed on the capsule via extremely high speeds that generate searing hot temperatures on the outside of the spacecraft.
Behnken said the Crew Dragon “really came alive” and sounded “like an animal” as it started to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Jolts, noise, and quoting old movies — @AstroBehnken explains what it was like to re-enter Earth's atmosphere inside the @SpaceX Dragon Endeavour. #LaunchAmerica pic.twitter.com/qOxVwGTYP9
— NASA (@NASA) August 4, 2020
“The atmosphere starts to make noise,” the astronaut said, “You can hear that rumble outside the vehicle, and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel a little bit of that shimmy in your body … We could feel those small rolls and pitches and yaws, and all those little motions were things that we picked up on inside the vehicle.”
He continued: “As we descended through the atmosphere, the thrusters were firing almost continuously … it doesn’t sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmosphere.”
As they were experiencing significant G-force inside the capsule, Behnken said he felt compelled to quote to Hurley a line from a scene in the 1985 comedy movie Spies Like Us where Chevy Chase asks Dan Aykroyd, “Wanna get some coffee?” after experiencing a grueling G-force training session that leaves their hair and faces hilariously contorted.
Behnken said that when the capsule’s parachutes deployed to slow the vehicle’s descent as it neared the water, it was “very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat, just a crack, and then you’d get some sort of motion associated with that … with the parachutes, it was a pretty significant jolt.”
There was an odd moment seconds before splashdown when their GPS altimeter, which Behnken pointed out isn’t always super accurate, suggested they were below zero, which he said was “a little bit surprising.” But they quickly hit the water and saw it splash up over the windows.
The 50-year-old NASA astronaut thanked the SpaceX team for the thorough training program, which even included the provision of audio clips recorded inside the capsule during the Demo-1 test mission last year so that Behnken and Hurley would have a better idea of what to expect on the way down.
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