SpaceX won a high-stakes game of capture the flag on Sunday after two NASA astronauts returned to Earth from the International Space Station.
President Barack Obama started the competition nine years ago, when his administration funded a public-private partnership program in which NASA would work with companies to send humans to space.
SpaceX beat Boeing, the other company in the contest, to the first crewed launch with the May 30 flight of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
The American flag flew on the first space shuttle and had stayed on the International Space Station since the vehicles stopped launching in 2011.
Behnken and Hurley just brought the flag home, and NASA hopes to next launch it to the moon.
When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley returned to Earth on SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship on Sunday, they carried an American flag with even more symbolism than usual.
The flag first rocketed to orbit on the inaugural space shuttle mission, STS-1. It was later left on the ISS by the crew of NASA's final space shuttle flight in 2011, called STS-135, of which Hurley was a member. The idea was that the next astronauts to launch on an American spacecraft from US soil would return the flag to Earth.
But at that time, it wasn't yet clear which company would get there first, or which astronauts would be selected for that mission.
"I understand it's going to be sort of like a capture-the-flag moment here for commercial spaceflight. So good luck to whoever grabs that flag," President Barack Obama said on a phone call with Hurley and his colleagues in 2011.
SpaceX launched Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30, marking the aerospace company's first crewed flight and the first time humans have ever flown a commercial spacecraft to orbit.
After Behnken and Hurley docked to the ISS on May 31 and climbed through the hatch into the football-field-sized floating laboratory, they put Elon Musk's rocket company on the cusp of winning the nine-year-long game of capture the flag.
Related: Why NASA waited a decade to send astronauts back to space
Hurley held the flag up to NASA's live broadcast cameras beside Behnken and astronaut Chris Cassidy soon thereafter.
"Chris had it right on the hatch where we left it nine years ago," Hurley said in June. "He's got a note: 'Do not forget to take with Crew Dragon.'"
On Saturday, as Behnken and Hurley wrapped up their two-month stay with a goodbye ceremony, the flag came up again.
"I do want to make mention of this very special flag," Cassidy said. "It has deep, deep space history — and getting deeper — as this flag will return to Earth with the Crew Dragon guys, and spend a little bit of time on Earth and, very soon, make a trip to the moon."
Behnken and Hurley undocked from the space station at 7:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, then began a fiery, high-speed journey through Earth's atmosphere. They splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday at 2:48 p.m., off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.
In that moment, SpaceX successfully won the epic commercial contest.
"Congratulations @SpaceX & @NASA on completing first crewed Dragon flight!! 🇺🇸 returned," Musk tweeted after Behnken and Hurley exited their toasted crew capsule on a recovery boat.
The world's first commercially developed and operated spaceflight
The Demo-2 mission was the product of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership that President Barack Obama started in 2011. The aim was to restore the US's ability to launch its own astronauts into space after the space shuttle program ended.
Both SpaceX and Boeing made it through the rigorous reviews and testing required by NASA. The space agency has contributed more than $3.1 billion of funding to SpaceX in the nearly decade-long partnership. Boeing has received about $4.8 billion in contracts.
Boeing launched its spaceship first, but software issues plagued the company's uncrewed test flight to the space station. The close calls triggered a series of required reviews and a forthcoming re-do mission before the company can launch astronauts.
That opened a window for SpaceX to accomplish its first crewed flight.
"We really are focused on making sure that we ... accomplish the ultimate mission, which isn't winning against Boeing. It's providing this capability to the International Space Station so that we can start rotating crews from American soil," Behnken said before the May launch.
For Hurley, the flag symbolizes that long journey and the dawning new era of commercial spaceflight.
"You can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth," Hurley said while on the ISS. "The important point is, as I said before, just returning launch capability to the United States to and from the International Space Station. That's what this flag really means."
Susie Neilson contributed reporting for this story.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on June 2, 2020.
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