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Crew Dragon astronauts pack up for return to Earth

Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner tweeted this photo Saturday of Crew Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken placing their mission patch on the space station docking port where the Dragon is attached. Credit: Ivan Vagner/Roscosmos

Crew Dragon astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken thanked their space station crewmates for a productive two-month visit, readied their SpaceX capsule for departure and stood by for a final “go” from flight controllers to undock Saturday night, setting up a Gulf of Mexico splashdown Sunday afternoon.

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go,” Behnken tweeted.

It will be the first splashdown for U.S. astronauts in 45 years and the first entry, descent and landing of a piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of the final steps before NASA can certify the SpaceX ferry ships for operational six-month flights to the space station.

“We’re about to embark on the the final portion of the journey,” Behnken said in a brief departure ceremony Saturday morning. “The hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part is bringing us home.”

“I look forward to the test objectives of not only separating from the International Space Station smoothly, but then coming down to a nice splashdown off the Florida coast to come full circle with bringing that capability to launch astronauts again to the United States.”

With Hurricane Isaias threatening Florida’s East Coast, effectively ruling out a splashdown off the coast from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral, NASA and SpaceX mission managers focused on four landing sites in the Gulf located off shore near Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa.

This map shows the Crew Dragon’s seven landing zones. Credit: NASA

With good weather expected at more than one of the Gulf sites, Hurley and Behnken looked forward to undocking around 7:30 p.m. Leaving the station behind, the astronauts plan to monitor a series of computer-orchestrated thruster firings to fine-tune their orbit before going to bed around 12:30 a.m. Sunday.

After a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call, the astronauts will work through a detailed pre-entry checklist before the Crew Dragon jettison’s its no-longer-needed trunk section at 1:46 p.m., exposing the capsule’s protective heat shield.

Then, starting at 1:51 p.m., the Crew Dragon’s forward thrusters are scheduled to fire for nearly 10 minutes, slowing the craft by about 105 mph, just enough to drop the far side of its orbit deep into the atmosphere.

Twenty-six minutes later, approaching the Gulf of Mexico from the southwest, the Crew Dragon is expected to plunge back into the discernible atmosphere, quickly slowing down as the heat shield endures temperatures higher than 3,000 degrees. Small drogue parachutes will then stabilize the capsule before four main parachutes unfurl at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.

Splashdown is expected at 2:42 p.m. The SpaceX recovery ship “Go Navigator” will be stationed nearby carrying initial responders with “fast boats” to quickly reach the spacecraft, medical personnel and support crews. Within the hour, they are expected to stabilize and “safe” the capsule, haul it on board, open the side hatch and help Hurley and Behnken out as they begin re-adjusting to gravity after two months in space.

Credit: SpaceX

Both astronauts said they expect a bit of nausea and possibly vomiting as they bob about in the capsule awaiting recovery. During an earlier interview aboard the station, Hurley joked, “there’s a pretty good likelihood that we may see breakfast twice on that particular day.”

In any case, after initial medical checks aboard the Go Navigator, the astronauts will be flown by helicopter to a nearby airport where a NASA jet will be waiting to fly them back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for debriefing and reunions with family members.

Since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and partner agency astronauts to and from the station at some $80 million per seat.

The Crew Dragon and, eventually, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 capsules are intended to end that sole reliance on Russia while opening up low-Earth orbit to private-sector development.

SpaceX launched and recovered an unpiloted Crew Dragon capsule last year and carried out a dramatic in-flight abort, again unpiloted, earlier this year. That cleared the way for Hurley and Behnken to blast off on the program’s first piloted mission, a test flight known as Demo 2, on May 30.

“The DM-2 test flight is in some ways just two thirds complete,” Hurley said Saturday. “We did the ascent, the rendezvous and the docking, we completed our docked objectives and now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase.”

During the departure ceremony, space station commander Chris Cassidy presented Hurley and Behnken with an American flag the crew of the final shuttle mission left aboard the lab complex in 2011. Hurley was the pilot of shuttle Atlantis for that final flight and “capturing the flag” marked a special moment.

Crew Dragon spacecraft commander Doug Hurley holds the U.S. flag that will return from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

The flag first flew in space aboard Columbia during the first shuttle mission in 1981 and if all goes well, it will be aboard NASA’s Orion capsule during a flight to the moon in the next few years.

“This flag has spent some time up here, on the order of nine years since we dropped it off on STS-135,” Hurley said. “So very proud to return this flag home and see what’s next for it on its journey to the moon.”

Also coming home: “Tremor,” the toy dinosaur that served as an ever-present zero-gravity indicator during the crew’s stay aboard the station. It was given to them by their sons, six-year-old Theo Behnken and 10-year-old Jack Hurley.

“My son and Doug’s son are really excited, not only to get their fathers back, but to get our apatosaurus, our zero-G indicator that they nominated to go with us on this historic mission,” Behnken said. “For Jack and Theo: Tremor, the apatosaurus, is headed home soon and he’ll be with your dads.”

Both men are married to astronauts. Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is retired from the astronaut corps, but Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is in training to fly to the space station next year aboard the same Crew Dragon bringing her husband home Sunday.

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Crew Dragon astronauts ready for re-entry, splashdown


Crew Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

With Hurricane Isaias threatening Florida’s East Coast, astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken are awaiting a go-ahead on plans to undock from the International Space Station Saturday, setting up a fiery plunge to splashdown Sunday, presumably in the Gulf of Mexico, to close out a 64-day flight.

Given the track of the hurricane, a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean at one of three approved sites off Florida’s east coast is effectively ruled out, focusing landing plans on the Gulf where four sites are available off Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa.

Assuming NASA and SpaceX press ahead, a final decision on prime and backup landing sites is not expected until Saturday, based on the latest forecasts and assessments of the Crew Dragon’s health. The preferred splashdown zone is just south of Panama City.

“We look forward to the weather forecasts that are coming out daily at this point, and they’ll even get more frequent as we get closer to the actual splashdown,” Behnken told reporters in an orbital news conference Friday.

“We have confidence that the teams on the ground are, of course, watching that much more closely than we are, and we won’t leave the space station without some good splashdown weather in front of us.”

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is certified for around 114 days in space and if the weather or some other problem crops up that might rule out undocking for a Sunday landing, “we know we can stay up here longer,” Behnken said. “There’s more chow, and I know the space station program’s got more work that we can do for the folks that have sent science up here to the space station.”

Said Hurley: “We have some of the best people in the business working on this for us and if the weather is not good, we won’t try to leave tomorrow, we’ll leave on a different day when it is.”

But assuming the weather cooperates and no technical issues crop up, Behnken and Hurley would undock from the station’s forward port around 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, spend the night aboard the Crew Dragon and then fire their braking rockets around 1:50 p.m. EDT Sunday for a splashdown in the Gulf around 2:42 p.m. EDT.

This map shows the Crew Dragon’s seven landing zones. Credit: NASA

A SpaceX recovery ship, staffed by engineers, medical personnel and fast-response support crews with jet skis and other gear, will be stationed nearby to recover the capsule, pull it on board, help the crew get out and render any medical assistance that might be necessary.

It will be NASA’s first ocean splashdown in 45 years and the first piloted re-entry of a Crew Dragon capsule. But Hurley and Behnken, both space shuttle veterans and former test pilots, said Friday they are confident the SpaceX capsule will bring them safely back to Earth.

That said, bobbing about in the sea awaiting recovery while re-adjusting to gravity after an extended stay in weightlessness raises the prospect of post-splashdown nausea and seasickness.

“One effect of (a long-duration stay in) space … is you’re very conditioned to microgravity, and you’re not so conditioned to gravity,” Hurley told James Corden, host of the CBS Late Late Show, in an earlier interview. “And then your vestibular system, your inner ears, play tricks with you.

“As you can imagine, even if you decided to go deep sea fishing one day, and you’ve lived on Earth your whole life, people get seasick. We’re going to do it from space and end up in the water. So there’s a pretty good likelihood that we may see breakfast twice on that particular day.”

Just in case, Hurley said Friday, “there are bags if (we) need them and we’ll have those handy, we’ll probably have some towels handy as well.”

“The ground teams are fully aware of the challenges of the water landing and what it does to the human body,” Hurley said. “We’ve got the the flight surgeons on board that will be able to help us as well. So all those things are in place and other than that, it’s just time to go give it a give it a try and and see how it goes.

The Crew Dragon was designed and built by SpaceX under contracts with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz ferry ships for transportation to and from the space station.

A successful unpiloted test flight was carried out last year, helping clear the way for Hurley and Behnken to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket May 30, the first orbital launch of astronauts aboard an American spacecraft from U.S. soil since the shuttle program’s final flight.

NASA managers say the Crew Dragon has chalked up a near flawless flight, setting the stage for re-entry and splashdown.

“We’re really excited to see our families,” Behnken said. “My son is six years old, and I can tell from the videos that I get, talking to him on the phone, that he’s changed a lot, even in the couple of months that we’ve been up here. And so that’s the thing I’m most looking forward to, seeing my family, my wife and my son.”

Hurley and Behnken are both married to astronauts. Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is retired from the astronaut corps, but Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is in training for launch to the space station aboard her husband’s Crew Dragon next year.

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NASA confirms plans for Crew Dragon splashdown Aug. 2, weather permitting

In this image taken July 1, a spacewalking astronaut snapped a view of the Crew Dragon spacecraft (at right) docked with the International Space Station. Japan’s HTV cargo ship, at bottom in gold, is also seen attached to the space station. Credit: NASA

Assuming good weather and a smooth final few weeks on the International Space Station, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are scheduled to undock from the orbiting research outpost Aug. 1 and return to Earth the next day to wrap up a 64-day test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the target dates for the Crew Dragon’s undocking and splashdown in a tweet Friday.

A few hours after departing the space station, the Crew Dragon will fire its Draco thrusters for a braking burn and re-enter the atmosphere, targeting a parachute-assisted splashdown at sea.

“Splashdown is targeted for Aug. 2,” he tweeted. “Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned.”

NASA and SpaceX are assessing return zones in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Officials originally selected landing sites in the Atlantic east of Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, and a location in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola, Florida. Last month, NASA said officials were evaluating additional candidate locations for the Crew Dragon’s splashdown off Daytona Beach, Tampa, Tallahassee and Panama City.

The additional options would give mission managers more flexibility in deciding when to approve the Crew Dragon’s undocking and re-entry.

The final selection of a landing site will hinge on weather and sea states. Assessments of climatology suggest conditions in the Gulf of Mexico have a higher likelihood of being favorable for splashdown in early August, sources said.

Hurley and Behnken will be the first NASA astronauts to return to Earth for a water landing since Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand splashed down July 24, 1975, in an Apollo command module to end the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which included the first docking between U.S. and Russian spacecraft in orbit.

“Probably the biggest area of concern is just how long it’s been since humans have done this on the U.S. side — splashing down in the water and then being recovered,” Behnken said from the space station in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

SpaceX has practiced recovering capsules at sea with cargo missions returning from the space station, an unpiloted Crew Dragon test flight last year, and a series of training sessions and rehearsals.

“They’ve done that many times at this point, and they’ve recovered those capsules pretty successfully and managed to get the timeline relatively short so that we expect to be back on the ship within an hour of splashdown,” Behnken said.

The crew is expected to remain inside the Dragon until the spacecraft is hoisted onto the deck of SpaceX’s recovery ship.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft launched with Hurley and Behnken on top of a Falcon 9 rocket May 30 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the first launch of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since the last space shuttle launch July 8, 2011.

The crew capsule autonomously docked with the International Space Station on May 31, allowing Hurley and Behnken to join space station commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley after their arrival at the International Space Station on May 31. Credit: NASA

The primary goal of the Crew Dragon’s first mission with astronauts — named Demo-2, or DM-2 — is to test the SpaceX-built capsule’s performance before it begins regular crew rotation flights to the space station later this year. SpaceX successfully flew an unpiloted Crew Dragon to and from the space station in 2019 before NASA approved the capsule to carry astronauts.

Hurley and Behnken have also assisted the space station’s long-duration crew with experiments, maintenance and other tasks. The Demo-2 mission was originally planned to last no more than a couple of weeks, but NASA announced earlier this year the test flight would be extended to expand the size of the crew on the space station.

At the time, Cassidy was the final U.S. astronaut NASA had booked to fly on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which has been the sole vehicle to carry crews to and from the space station since the end of the space shuttle program nearly a decade ago. That meant Cassidy would have been the only U.S. astronaut on the station for most of the time from April through October, limiting opportunities for research and spacewalks needed to upgrade and maintain the orbiting complex.

With the extended Demo-2 mission, Behnken has joined Cassidy on three spacewalks since June 26 to finish replacing batteries on the space station’s solar power truss. One more spacewalk by Behnken and Cassidy is scheduled for Tuesday, July 21.

NASA says the Crew Dragon has performed well since its launch. While docked at the space station, the capsule has been put into hibernation and awakened several times to check its availability to serve as a lifeboat for the crew if they had to evacuate the orbiting research lab in an emergency.

Ground teams have also monitored the performance of the Crew Dragon’s body-mounted solar arrays, which can degrade over time due to the harsh environment in low Earth orbit. So far, the power-generating arrays have performed better than predicted.

Last week, four of the space station crew members boarded the Crew Dragon to assess the ship’s ability to accommodate a four-person crew in orbit, particularly when astronauts will be required to sleep on the vehicle during the transit to and from the space station.

If the Demo-2 mission returns to Earth in early August, SpaceX and NASA will press ahead with preparations for the first operational Crew Dragon mission. That flight, designated Crew-1, is currently scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-to-late September.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said last month that engineers will need around six weeks evaluate data from the Crew Dragon test flight before formally certifying the capsule as ready for operational missions.

The brand new Falcon 9 first stage booster for the Crew-1 mission arrived Tuesday at Cape Canaveral for launch preparations. The Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Crew-1 mission will arrive in the coming weeks.

NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi are training for the Crew-1 mission. Noguchi, a veteran of two previous space missions, will become the first astronaut to launch on the space shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz rocket, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

NASA has ordered six crew rotation flights on the Crew Dragon spacecraft through 2024, each carrying four astronauts to and from the space station on expeditions lasting as long as 210 days. SpaceX also has agreements with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, two commercial space companies, to fly private citizens into orbit on shorter-duration Crew Dragon missions beginning as soon as late 2021.

SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon under contract to NASA, but the company is free to use the spacecraft for commercial flights without NASA involvement.

NASA has a similar contract with Boeing for development of the Starliner crew capsule, which has yet to fly with astronauts. An unpiloted Starliner test flight was cut short before docking with the space station in December, and Boeing plans to fly a second demonstration mission later this year before a test flight with a crew on-board in early 2021.

There are several modifications to the capsule SpaceX is building for the Crew-1 mission, although major components such as the capsule’s life support system and guidance, navigation and control systems are largely unchanged from the Demo-2 configuration.

“The Crew-1 vehicle can land in a little bit higher wind state,” Stich said in a press briefing May 31. “SpaceX has changed some of the outer composite panels to make that a little stronger.”

“It also has the capability not only dock to the forward port of the space station, but it can go to the zenith (space-facing) port as well, so it has that capability, and it has a couple other features,” Stich said.

NASA and SpaceX have not released the official wind and sea state constraints officials will use to determine the final schedule and location for the Demo-2 splashdown.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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