A pair of NASA astronauts undocked from the International Space Station and sailed off for the most important part of their test mission, powered by Hawthorne-based SpaceX: returning to Earth with a rare splashdown on Sunday, Aug. 2.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken took part in a farewell ceremony Saturday, Aug. 1, at the station, several hours ahead of their departure on a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 1, 2020
The capsule was unhooked from an array of docking hooks and “umbilicals” at 4:35 p.m. California time — the craft operating on power and life-support systems independent from the space station — and then a 12-second firing of its thrusters helped to propel the Dragon toward Earth. A series of additional “departure burns” helped the craft move clear of the station and get on its way home.
“@AstroBehnken & @Astro_Doug are on their way home to planet Earth,” NASA officials posted Saturday afternoon on Twitter.
Despite approaching Hurricane Isaias, NASA said the weather looked favorable for a Sunday splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida, the new prime site. It will be the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years. The last time was following the joint U.S.-Soviet mission in 1975 known as Apollo-Soyuz.
The Dragon spacecraft is expected to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean at 11:42 a.m. California time Sunday, arriving at one of seven “targeted water landing sites,” according to SpaceX.
We are ‘GO’ for undocking of the @SpaceX Dragon Endeavour from @Space_Station. Our #LaunchAmerica crew aboard the spacecraft confirms their visors are down, and they are ready for departure: pic.twitter.com/otZPvYH18w
— NASA (@NASA) August 1, 2020
The astronauts’ homecoming will cap a two-month mission that ended a prolonged launch drought in the U.S., which has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the end of the shuttle era.
In launching Hurley and Behnken from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 30, Elon Musk’s company became the first private firm to send people into orbit. Now SpaceX is on the verge of becoming the first company to bring people back from orbit.
“The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important is bringing us home,” Behnken said.
A successful splashdown, Behnken said, will bring U.S.-crew launching capability “full circle.”
Space station commander Chris Cassidy, who will remain on board with two Russians until October, presented Hurley with the small U.S. flag left behind by the previous astronauts to launch to the space station from U.S. soil, in July 2011. Hurley was the pilot of that final shuttle mission.
The flag — which also flew on the first shuttle flight in 1981 — became a prize for the company that launched astronauts first.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX easily beat Boeing, which isn’t expected to launch its first crew until next year and will land in the U.S. Southwest. The flag has one more flight after this one: to the moon on NASA’s Artemis program in the next few years.
“We’re a little sad to see them go,” Cassidy said, “but very excited for what it means to our international space program to add this capability” of commercial crew capsules.
Hurley and Behnken also are bringing back a sparkly blue and purple dinosaur named Tremor. Their young sons chose the toy to accompany their fathers on the historic mission.
— NASA (@NASA) August 1, 2020
Behnken said he and Hurley spent the day preparing for the trip, “working through the onboard training that will refamiliarize us with the splashdown activities, what our responsibilities will be, the things that we’ll monitor.”
But even before their mission is completed, SpaceX is already deep into planning for the next one. Assuming there are no glitches with the remainder of Hurley and Behnken’s demonstration mission, dubbed Demo-2, the company will move ahead with Crew Dragon’s first “operational mission.”
That mission will launch four astronauts — Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi — to the space station, sometime in late September.
The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report
Source: Orange County Register