Elon Musk / NASA

SpaceX just brought 2 NASA astronauts back to Earth

The Demo-2 mission carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley made a landing in the Gulf of Mexico

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US PRESS GROUP

On Sunday afternoon, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley safely careened back to Earth after a 27-million-mile mission in orbit around the planet. The men rode SpaceX's new Crew Dragon spaceship, landing its cone-shaped capsule around 2:48 p.m. ET in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida.

Ahead of the landing, the crew undocked from the $150 billion International Space Station, where they'd spent 63 days, and performed a series of maneuvers to return home to their families. The capsule handily survived a blistering 3,500-degree-Fahrenheit return through Earth's atmosphere, a high-stakes parachute deployment, and the final splashdown.

SpaceX privately designed, built, and operated the vehicle with about $2.7 billion in contracts from NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The money helped SpaceX create its newfound spaceflight capability and is funding about half a dozen missions — including Behnken and Hurley's demonstration flight, Demo-2, which launched on May 30.

With Demo-2's completion, SpaceX has put an end to a nine-year drought of crewed spaceflight from US soil. The company has also resurrected NASA's ability to reach the ISS, where the agency hopes to ramp up work to help it return humans to the moon and eventually reach Mars.

The mission's end likely brings SpaceX just weeks from a NASA certification of its Crew Dragon for regular flights of astronauts — and private citizens.

"We don't want to purchase, own, and operate the hardware the way we used to. We want to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said during a NASA TV broadcast ahead of the landing.

He added: "This is the next era in human spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer. We want to be a strong customer, we want to be a great partner. But we don't want to be the only ones that are operating with humans in space."

Before Demo-2, the United States hadn't launched humans into space from American soil since July 2011 — when NASA flew its final space shuttle mission.

In the following nine years, NASA was forced to rely solely on Russia's Soyuz launch system to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station. But that became increasingly expensive.

Russia used its spaceflight monopoly to charge more and more per round-trip ticket for each NASA astronaut. The cost has risen from about $21 million in 2008 (before the shuttle was retired) to more than $90 million per seat on a planned flight for October. A seat on SpaceX's Crew Dragon, meanwhile, is projected to cost $55 million (not including NASA's $2.7 billion in funding), according to NASA's inspector general.

Also, with just one to two seats for NASA astronauts aboard each Soyuz flight — down from the space shuttle's seven — the arrangement also limited American use of the floating laboratory, which has housed as many as 13 people at once (though crews are typically six people).

Most concerning to mission managers, the arrangement left NASA reliant on a single launch system.

The agency felt the effects of that pickle as high-profile issues appeared with Soyuz over the past few years, including a mysterious leak and a rocket-launch failure that forced an emergency landing. After these incidents, NASA and other space agencies had nowhere else to turn. (Although China has a human spaceflight program, NASA is typically not allowed to work with the country.)

With SpaceX's successful Demo-2 flight, and the upcoming test flights of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, that insecure footing for US human spaceflight is now in the rearview mirror.

"This is the culmination of a dream," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told "CBS This Morning" ahead of the mission's launch in May. "This is a dream come true. In fact, it feels surreal."

In addition to giving NASA better access to the space station, having a spacecraft and launch system enables the agency to use the space station's microgravity environment to conduct more science experiments — in pharmaceuticals, materials science, astronomy, medicine, and more.

"The International Space Station is a critical capability for the United States of America. Having access to it is also critical," Bridenstine said during a briefing on May 1. "We are moving forward very rapidly with this program that is so important to our nation and, in fact, to the entire world."

With the completion of Demo-2, SpaceX has also gained operational experience flying people to and from space. And that's hugely important to Musk, who has big plans for SpaceX.

SpaceX first plans to fly space tourists. In February, the company announced that it had sold four seats through a spaceflight tourism company called Space Adventures. Then in March, news broke that Axiom Space — led in part by a former ISS mission manager at NASA — had also signed a deal with SpaceX.

Even a flight of actor Tom Cruiseand his director aboard Crew Dragon is in the works. The duo plan to film part of a new movie aboard the ISS.

But Musk's primary vision is to launch people around the moon, later land others on the lunar surface, and then move on to establish Martian cities. His ultimate goal is to put a million settlers on the red planet.

NASA shares some of Musk's ambitions (sending humans back to the moon and, eventually, on to Mars) but there are a lot of steps along the way. Sending astronauts to the space station aboard the Crew Dragon represents a major milestone.

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