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Dragon astronauts describe sounds and sensations of return to Earth

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are seen Sunday aboard a helicopter that carried from the SpaceX’s “Go Navigator” recovery ship in the Gulf of Mexico to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they boarded a NASA jet for a flight back to their home base in Houston. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Two days after becoming the first U.S. space fliers splash down in the sea in more than 45 years, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on Tuesday described their fiery ride back to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to cap a “flawless” test flight, setting the stage for operational flights beginning later this year.

Riding in their commercial Crew Dragon spacecraft, which they named Endeavour, the astronauts parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico Sunday after plunging through Earth’s atmosphere on a return trip from the International Space Station.

“I personally expected there to be certainly — not issues with the vehicle — but some challenges, some things that were maybe not quite what we expected,” said Hurley, the Crew Dragon’s spacecraft commander, and a veteran of two prior space shuttle flights. “I mean, even on our shuttle flights we had things that happened … something that you certainly wouldn’t have expected in a real flight.

“My credit once again is to the folks at SpaceX, the production folks, the people that put Endeavour together, and certainly our training folks,” Hurley said. “The mission went just like the simulators. Honestly, from start to finish, all the way, there were really no surprises.”

Hurley and Behnken launched May 30 on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, becoming the first astronauts to launch into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle nearly a decade ago. The next day, the duo docked with the space station to join commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to finish a multi-year effort to upgrade batteries on the space station’s solar power truss. Hurley assisted with operating the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm, and both Dragon astronauts helped perform maintenance, scientific experiments and other tasks during their two-month stint on the orbiting research lab.

But the prime objective of Hurley and Behnken’s mission — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — was to verify the performance and capabilities of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. They were the first astronauts to fly into space on a Crew Dragon, following the unpiloted Demo-1 test flight to the space station in March 2019.

The final major task for the Crew Dragon Endeavour spaceship was the return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken floated into the capsule Saturday, and the ship autonomously detached from the space station. A series of maneuvers using the Dragon’s Draco thrusters steered the capsule a safe distance from the station and lined up with the targeted recovery zone in the Gulf of Mexico roughly 34 miles (54 kilometers) off the coast near Pensacola, Florida.

A final 11-minute deorbit burn allowed the Crew Dragon to drop back into the atmosphere. A thermal shield protected the capsule and the astronauts inside from the scorching heat of re-entry, and temperatures outside the spacecraft were expected to reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius).

As expected, a sheath of plasma around the spacecraft blocked communications for several minutes between the astronauts and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. Mission control regained contact with the crew moments before the capsule deployed two drogue parachutes to stabilize its descent through the atmosphere, then unfurled four large orange and white main chutes to slow the capsule to about 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) for splashdown.

Hurley and Behnken were the first U.S. astronauts to return to Earth for a water landing since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975.

The Crew Dragon’s return to Earth “was more than what Doug and I expected,” said Behnken, who served as the spacecraft’s pilot.

“As we kind of descended through the atmosphere, I personally was surprised at just how quickly the events all transpired,” Behnken told reporters Tuesday. “It seemed just like a couple minutes later after the (deorbit) burn was complete, we could look out the windows and see the clouds rushing by at a much accelerated rate.”

“Once we descended a little bit into the atmosphere, Dragon really came alive,” Behnken said. “It started to fire thrusters and keep us pointed in the appropriate direction. The atmosphere starts to make noise. You can hear that rumble outside the vehicle, and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel that little bit of shimmy in your body. And our bodies were much better attuned to the environment, so we could feel those small rolls, pitches, and yaws. All those little motions were things we could pick up on inside the vehicle.”

It took just 12 minutes from the time that the Crew Dragon encountered the uppermost reaches of the discernible atmosphere until splashdown. NASA’s winged space shuttles made a more gradual descent, taking roughly 30 minutes from the start of re-entry until touchdown on a runway.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday with two NASA astronauts on-board. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“As we descended, through the atmosphere, the thrusters were firing almost continuously” Behnken said. “I did record some audio of it, but 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 atmospheric noise. It just continues to gain magnitude as you descend down through the atmosphere. I think we both really, really noticed that aspect of things.”

Behnken, a 50-year-old veteran of two space shuttle missions, also described what the crew felt when the Crew Dragon’s trunk section jettisoned just before the deorbit burn, along with the sensations inside the spaceship when mortars fired to deploy the parachutes.

“All the separation events, from the trunk separation through the parachute firings were very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat — just a crack, and then you get some sort of a motion associated with that,” Behnken said.

He said that feeling was “pretty light for the trunk separation, but with the parachutes it was a pretty significant jolt, and a couple of jolts as you go through dis-reefing (expansion) of the parachutes as well.”

Behnken said he quoted to Hurley during the re-entry a humorous scene from the 1985 comedy film Spies Like Us, where Chevy Chase asks Dan Aykroyd if he wants some coffee after training in a spinning centrifuge.

“I took a line from an old movie that Doug and I were both familiar with at one point,” he said. “Under the G-load of about 4.2 Gs, I said, ‘Want to get some coffee,’ much like we’d seen in an old movie that we had watched because that was really the feeling that we had. That’s the best way to describe if you’ve seen an old movie that happened to have some guys who’d been in a centrifuge. That’s what we felt like.”

The Crew Dragon capsule is equipped with an altimeter to estimate the ship’s altitude using GPS navigation data, and the astronauts were watching the display during the final descent under the parachutes.

“It’s not super-accurate everywhere that you’re located, so we got below zero for our altitude on that indicator, which was a little bit surprising, and then we felt the splash and we saw it splash up over the windows. It was just a great relief, I think, for both of us at that point,” Behnken said.

SpaceX provided audio recordings from the Crew Dragon’s first orbital test flight to help prepare Hurley and Behnken for the ride during launch and re-entry. Behnken said that helped the astronauts know what to expect as the rode the Crew Dragon for the first time.

“We were really comfortable coming through the atmosphere even though it felt like we were inside of an animal,” Behnken said.

He said it was difficult to see out the windows, which are located near the astronauts’ feet, during the period of entry with the highest G-loads. Instead, the astronauts focused on their touchscreen displays.

The thermal control system inside the capsule was designed to keep the temperature below 85 degrees Fahrenheit, or 29 degrees Celsius, as temperatures reached their hottest outside the spacecraft during entry.

“I do feel like I felt some warming of the capsule on the inside,” Behnken said.

Behnken offered a similarly vivid account of the ride into orbit on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The astronauts were the first people to rocket into space on a Falcon 9.

By the time the capsule was through the hottest part of re-entry and the G-forces subsided, the capsule’s windows were blackened from the ordeal. Scorch marks were also visible on the outer skin of the crew capsule, and those were anticipated by SpaceX and NASA.

“You can see from just an overall view of the capsule that re-entry is a pretty demanding environment, with the different scorches on the vehicle, and the windows were not spared any of that,” Hurley said. “To look out the windows, you could basically tell that it was daylight but very little else.”

Hurley said the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft was “rock solid” during the descent back to Earth.

“Personally, I expected the entry to diverge somewhat from what we saw in the simulation,” Hurley said. “What I mean by that is as the capsule gets into the thicker atmosphere … just prior to the drogues (parachutes) with Dragon, I expected there to be some divergence in attitude control because it’s a real tough problem for the ship as it gets into thicker air to maintain perfect attitude control.”

He expected the vehicle might command the drogue parachutes to deploy a bit early to help stabilize its attitude, or orientation. That wasn’t required Sunday.

“The vehicle was rock solid right up until the nominal drogue deploy altitude,” Hurley said. “You could feel it, you felt the decel (deceleration), you knew the drogues both worked, and then it was the same of the mains. We felt the different stages of dis-reef, and then right to the impact in the water … We kind of had a feeling that it would not be as much (of an impact) as a (Russian) Soyuz landing as it was described to us, but it was going to be a pretty firm splashdown, and then even how we bobbed in the water, and how the vehicle sat in the water.”

By all accounts, the Crew Dragon aced the test flight. NASA expects to convene a review in late August or early September to formally certify the Crew Dragon for operational crew rotation flights to and from the space station.

Three NASA astronauts and a Japanese astronaut are training for the first operational Crew Dragon mission, known as Crew-1, for launch on a six-month expedition to the space station as soon as late September. Sources said the late September launch schedule is somewhat optimistic, and there’s a chance SpaceX’s Crew-1 launch might be delayed until after the launch of the next Russian Soyuz crew capsule, which is set for Oct. 14.

“So my compliments to SpaceX and the commercial crew program. The vehicle performed exactly how it was supposed to, and you feel really good about Crew-1, and what they should expect and what they should see when they fly their mission,” Hurley said.

For now, NASA and SpaceX officials say they remain hopeful for a Crew-1 launch before the end of next month.

After splashdown, the crew waited for SpaceX’s recovery team to arrive at the capsule and hoist it onto a recovery vessel. Once on-board the boat, the astronauts waited the SpaceX team to ensure there were no toxic vapors leaking from the capsule’s propulsion system, then technicians and medical personnel opened the hatch to help Hurley and Behnken out of the spacecraft.

Hurley said the astronauts took some time after splashdown to test out a satellite phone they had on-board. If they had landed off course well away from SpaceX’s recovery team, they could have used the phone to call rescue forces.

The astronauts first tried calling SpaceX mission control in California.

“When we called … they said standby,” Hurley said. “So we decided we would exercise our judgment and use our phone to call some other folks.”

Hurley joked Sunday night that the astronauts were “making prank satellite phone calls to whoever we could get ahold of, which was kind of fun.”

They called NASA’s flight director and their wives — both veteran astronauts — at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

‘”Hi, this is Bob and Doug. We’re in the ocean.'”

“This was a great chance to reassure them that we were in the water, we were ok, we were feeling good,” Hurley said. “And at that point, we were still waiting on SpaceX, so we just decided to call a few other people that we knew their phone numbers.”

After getting out of the SpaceX capsule, getting out of their pressure suits and completing initial medical checks, the astronauts rode in a helicopter from SpaceX’s recovery vessel to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they got on a NASA jet for the trip back to their home base in Houston to be reunited with their families.

Their first meal back on Earth? A pizza.

Amid an exercise protocol to help readapt to Earth’s gravity, the astronauts said they are looking forward to spending time with their families. The astronauts began training for the mission in 2015.

“There’s a lot of stuff to do in the next few weeks,” Hurley said. “We’re hoping at some point to take some time off and share some more time with our families since they were the ones that really had to sacrifice over the last five years.”

The astronauts said their experience flying the Crew Dragon gives them confidence the spacecraft is ready for regular crew rotation flights, pending analysis of all the data from the Demo-2 mission.

“They do need to look at the data from our entry,” Behnken said. “It’s not just the end users’ anecdotes of how well it performed. They will do a very thorough review, both on the SpaceX side and the NASA side, to make sure that they’re comfortable. But from a crew perspective, I think it’s definitely ready to go.

“There are things that could be improved … to make things a little bit more comfortable, or a little bit more efficient inside the vehicle for those crews. But from a crew perspective, I think we’re perfectly comfortable that Crew-1 is ready when they finish the engineering and analysis associated with certification,” Behnken said.

Hurley added that the extension of the Demo-2 mission’s duration from several days to two months also offered a chance of engineers to gather more data on the capsule’s performance, increasing confidence that the spacecraft will be ready for the roughly-six Crew-1 mission beginning later this year.

“There’s a certification process that Endeavour hasn’t completed yet, and it will likely be weeks,” Hurley said. “From my experience of flying fighters and testing fighters … there’s a lot of scrutiny on a first light, and there’s a lot of work that goes into a first flight, but you can’t let your guard down, and you’ve got to take a look at the data, you’ve got to listen to the hardware, and it’s probably gonna take a few flights.

“We certainly did our best, and I think the teams did their best to script this flight to be a full-up test flight, but there are certainly things on Dragon that could be tested more,” Hurley said.

Behnken’s wife is astronaut Megan McArthur. NASA announced last week she will be the pilot on the Crew-2 mission, which is slated launch in the spring of 2021 and will use the same reusable Crew Dragon spaceship flown by Hurley and Behnken on the Demo-2 test flight.

“For me, I think in the short term I transition into a support role,” Behnken said Tuesday. “I’ll definitely be focused on making sure that her mission is as successful as possible and supporting her just as she did for me over the last five years with the uncertainty in our launch dates and the uncertainty in our return dates.

“It’s definitely her turn to focus on getting her mission, while I take care of the things that need to be taken care of for our home life,” said Behnken, an Air Force colonel and flight test engineer.

Throughout their flight, Hurley and Behnken shared images on Twitter of daily life on the International Space Station and spectacular snapshots of planet Earth, showing views of cities, mountain ranges, oceans and tropical cyclones.

“The perspective that you have from low Earth orbit of our planet is just one of just complete awe, said Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel and fighter pilot. “First of all, of how beautiful the planet is, that there are no borders that you can see from space that the atmosphere is so thin.

“The United States, and the world, has been dealing with so much chaos and drama, and the pandemic, and all the things that have been going on in the world,” Hurley said. If it were me, it would make me feel better to see these pictures form space, so we just felt like it was a way to have folks maybe have a distraction for awhile, and also to appreciate the planet that we’ve been given.”

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Relive the final descent of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft

A new video released by SpaceX shows the company’s Crew Dragon capsule plunging toward the Gulf of Mexico before unfurling a series of parachutes to slow the spaceship carrying two NASA astronauts from 350 mph to a relatively gentle 15 mph before splashdown Sunday.

The dramatic tracking video released by SpaceX late Monday shows the capsule deploying two drogue chutes at an altitude of around 18,000 feet, or 5,500 meters, while moving at about 350 mph, or more than 560 kilometers per hour.

Moments later, four giant orange and white main parachutes fired out of mortars on the side of the Crew Dragon capsule at an altitude of 6,000 feet (1,800 meters), then began opening to their full size to slow the spaceship from 119 mph (191 kilometers per hour) to around 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) before splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico around 34 miles (54 kilometers) off the coast of Florida near Pensacola.

The successful return to Earth with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken closed out a 64-day test flight, the first orbital mission by astronauts on a U.S. spaceship since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. The commercial capsule was built and is owned by SpaceX, the private space transportation company founded by Elon Musk in 2002.

The successful two-month test flight to the International Space Station sets the stage for the first operational flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft later this year. That mission will deliver four astronauts to the space station for a stay lasting around six months.

Hurley and Behnken named their reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft “Endeavour” after NASA’s retired space shuttle, on which both astronauts flew earlier in their careers.

The Dragon Endeavour spacecraft launched May 30 atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, then autonomously docked with the space station May 31. During their two months on the orbiting research complex, Hurley and Behnken assisted the station’s other three crew members with maintenance, scientific experiments, and a series of spacewalks to complete a multi-year effort to upgrade batteries on the lab’s solar power truss.

Hurley and Behnken boarded their Dragon spacecraft Saturday and undocked from the space station, heading for an on-target splashdown Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more details, read our full story on the splashdown of the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft with Hurley and Behnken. Additional photos of the Crew Dragon’s splashdown, and views of Hurley and Behnken’s exit from the spacecraft and return to shore via helicopter, are posted below.

The photos also show numerous private vessels approaching the spacecraft after splashdown. NASA and SpaceX officials say they will reassess their security and ocean clearance policies before the next Crew Dragon splashdown.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after splashdown Sunday. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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Astronauts back on Earth after ‘extraordinary’ Dragon test flight

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday with two NASA astronauts on-board. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Returning home after a 64-day test flight, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken blazed through Earth’s atmosphere and parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Sunday, a final major step before NASA formally certifies the crew capsule for operational missions to the International Space Station.

The successful homecoming for Hurley and Behnken signaled a turning point in NASA’s commercial crew program, which fostered public-private partnerships with U.S. companies to design, develop and fly new human-rated space taxis after the retirement of the space shuttle.

The astronauts launched inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship May 30, when they rode a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was the first time a crew rocketed into orbit from U.S. soil since the last space shuttle flight in 2011.

With Sunday’s splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, NASA is on the verge of certifying the Crew Dragon spacecraft for regular trips to and from the space station. That will allow the space agency to end its reliance on Russia for crew transportation.

“This has been quite an odyssey the last, five, seven, eight years — five years since Bob and I started working on this program,” Hurley said after Sunday’s return. “And to be where we are now, (with) the first crewed flight of Dragon, is just unbelievable.”

Not only was Sunday’s splashdown a major milestone for NASA, it also made history in the realm of commercial spaceflight. The Crew Dragon became the first privately-owned spacecraft to carry a crew into orbit and return them safely to Earth.

“I do think what this heralds really is fundamentally a new era in spaceflight, a new era in space exploration,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, in remarks Sunday evening in Houston to welcome home Hurley and Behnken. “We’re going to go to the moon. We’re going to have a base on the moon. We’re going to send people to Mars, and make life multi-planetary.”

After detaching from the International Space Station on Saturday night, the Dragon spacecraft carrying Hurley and Behnken lined up for a southwest-to-northeast approach to a splashdown zone in the Gulf around 34 miles (54 kilometers) off the Florida coast near Pensacola.

The capsule jettisoned its unpressurized trunk section — with the ship’s solar panels and thermal control radiator — just before firing a set of Draco rocket jets at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT) for a deorbit burn lasting more than 11 minutes.

The braking burn changed the capsule’s velocity enough to allow Earth’s gravity to pull the spacecraft back into the atmosphere, which did the rest of the work to slow Dragon’s speed from 17,500 mph (28,000 kilometers per hour) to just 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) for splashdown.

The spacecraft closed its nose cone a few minutes later, then encountered the uppermost fringes of the discernible atmosphere at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT).

Wearing their white SpaceX-made flame-resistant pressure suits, the astronauts experienced up to 4Gs during entry. The capsule flew on autopilot, pointing its blunt end into the airflow as temperatures outside the spacecraft rose up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (over 1,900 degrees Celsius).

A plasma sheath enshrouded the capsule for several minutes, causing an expected communication blackout between the Crew Dragon — which Hurley and Behnken named “Endeavour” — and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Ground teams restored the voice link with the Dragon astronauts, and a pair of drogue parachutes unfurled to stabilize the capsule. Four orange and white main parachutes deployed at an altitude of about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) to slow the capsule’s descent in the last few minutes before splashdown.

The 13-foot-wide (4-meter), 16-foot-tall (5-meter) capsule splashed down at 2:48 p.m. EDT (1848 GMT).

“Endeavour, on behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth,” radioed SpaceX’s spacecraft communicator Mike Heiman. “Thanks for flying SpaceX.”

“It was truly our honor and privilege to fly the (first) flight of the Crew Dragon Endeavour,” Hurley replied moments after splashdown. “Congratulations to everybody at SpaceX.”

The splashdown near Pensacola was the first time U.S. astronauts returned from a space mission with a splashdown at sea since 1975, when the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission came back to Earth. It was also the first splashdown of astronauts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurley and Behnken’s mission — known as Demo-2, or DM-2 — lasted 64 days since they blasted off from Florida’s Space Coast on May 30.

After reaching the space station May 31, the astronauts joined the Expedition 63 led by commander Chris Cassidy.

Cassidy and his two Russian crewmates — Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — will remain aboard the space station until October, when they will return to a landing in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Three fresh crew members will launch to the space station Oct. 14 on a new Soyuz spaceship.

During their two-month stay, Hurley and Behnken assisted Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner with space station duties, performing experiments and maintenance. Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to replace batteries on the space station’s solar power modules.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after splashdown Sunday. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A SpaceX recovery vessel named “Go Navigator” was on station in the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve the Crew Dragon spaceship after it splashed down.

Two “fast boats” with recovery team members approached the capsule. After ensuring the spacecraft was safe, the larger recovery boat took position near the Dragon and hoisted the capsule out of the water using a lifting frame.

Once the Dragon was on the deck of Go Navigator, SpaceX technicians detected elevated levels of nitrogen tetroxide outside the spacecraft. The compound is used as an oxidizer for the spacecraft’s maneuvering thrusters, and is highly toxic.

The recovery team purged part of the spacecraft to rid it of the toxic contaminants before opening the hath and helping Hurley and Behnken out of the capsule for initial medical checks.

SpaceX said the recovery ship had around 44 people on-board, including SpaceX and NASA officials, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. Spacecraft technicians were aboard to recover and secure the Dragon capsule.

Hurley and Behnken later rode a helicopter to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they boarded a NASA aircraft for the flight back to their home base in Houston.

The astronauts came back to Earth with around 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of cargo, including frozen experiment specimens, personal gear, and a U.S. flag left on the space station by the final space shuttle crew in 2011.

Hurley was the pilot on the final space shuttle flight.

The flag also flew on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, in 1981. The final shuttle crew left it on the space station to be returned by the next astronauts to fly to the research lab on a U.S. spacecraft.

In the end, SpaceX won the “capture the flag” competition on the high frontier.

NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to develop and fly new U.S.-built commercial crew capsules to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, following several years of preliminary design work.

SpaceX, founded by Musk 18 years ago, launched a successful unpiloted Crew Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in March 2019, then overcame a setback during ground testing of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system last year. After redesigning part of the abort system, and verifying new modifications to the capsule’s parachutes, SpaceX launched the first Crew Dragon mission with astronauts May 30.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule launched into orbit for its first unpiloted test flight last December, but it ran into software problems that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the space station. Boeing recovered the spacecraft with a successful landing in New Mexico, but officials plan to re-fly the uncrewed demonstration mission later this year before clearing the Starliner to carry astronauts for the first time in 2021.

SpaceX has signed contracts with NASA on the Crew Dragon program valued at more than $3 billion. Boeing has a similar set of agreements with NASA worth more than $5 billion for the Starliner program.

Both companies have contributed undisclosed sums to the Crew Dragon and Starliner programs from their own corporate funds.

NASA says contracting out human spaceflight missions to low Earth orbit will reduce costs, freeing limited government funding for astronaut journeys to the moon, and eventually Mars.

With the Crew Dragon’s first round-trip space mission with astronauts in the books, SpaceX and NASA will analyze data from the Demo-2 test flight before formally certifying the commercial capsule for operational crew rotation launches.

The first such regular crew rotation flight, named Crew-1, is scheduled for launch this fall on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. Four astronauts are assigned to the Crew-1 flight.

“We’ll do a few things to get ready for certification in a few different areas,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “One, we’ll review all the telemetry, all the data from the Dragon. We’ve done that for the whole flight to date. We’ll do that now for undocking all the way through splashdown and recovery.

“We do it jointly with SpaceX,” said Stich, a former NASA flight director. “We have our NASA team and SpaceX working together and going through all the data for each of the various systems — life support, propulsion, and so forth. So we’ll go through all that data to make sure that there’s nothing anomalous there.

Second, we’ll look at the parachutes,” Stich said. “The parachutes are a very important system on the vehicle. SpaceX was doing a great job of recovering their chutes today, so we’ll take those back and analyze those, look at it, just to see if they performed well.”

The Dragon capsule that flew Hurley and Behnken into space will fly again on the Crew-2 mission next year. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said Sunday the company’s new Dragon spacecraft design — which comes in crew and cargo variants — should be capable of five to 10 flights.

“One of the benefits of reuse, I would say, is the fact that we’ll take some of the vehicle apart,” Stich said. “The nose cone will come off, the heat shield comes off, we’ll start to inspect part of the spacecraft, and sometimes we can learn things from that.

“So we’ll do that inspection, and then we’ll put all that together and head into the certification review, probably toward the end of this month or early next month.”

Subsequent Crew Dragon missions to the space station will also launch with up to four passengers, and the spaceship — once certified after Demo-2’s return — will be capable of missions lasting up to 210 days.

While SpaceX’s core market for crew missions is with NASA and government astronauts, the company has its eyes set on flying commercial passengers. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced agreements with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, two companies that are arranging orbital expeditions with space tourists, paying passengers, and other would-be space fliers in the private sector.

One future Crew Dragon passenger could be Tom Cruise, who is planning to film a movie in orbit through a partnership with SpaceX, according to the entertainment website Deadline.

“This was an extraordinary mission, an extraordinary day for NASA, for SpaceX, and frankly for Americans and anyone interested in spaceflight,” Shotwell said Sunday, referring to the conclusion of the Demo-2 test flight. “This is really just the beginning. We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, and on to the moon, and ultimately on to Mars.”

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Hurley, Behnken heading home on final leg of Crew Dragon test flight

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken undocked from the International Space Station Saturday aboard their Crew Dragon capsule “Endeavour,” heading for a parachute-assisted splashdown Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico to wrap up a 64-day test flight of SpaceX’s commercial human-rated spaceship.

With favorable wind and sea conditions expected in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, mission control gave the go-ahead for Hurley and Behnken to board their Crew Dragon spacecraft and close hatches between the capsule and the space station.

After a series of leak checks, an undocking command at 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT) Saturday commenced a series of automated steps to depart the station. Power umbilicals detached inside the docking mechanism, then 12 hooks opened before the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft fired thrusters in a pair of short pulses to boost itself away from the research complex at 7:35 p.m. EDT (2335 GMT).

Wearing custom-made SpaceX-built pressure suits, Hurley and Behnken monitored the departure on touchscreen displays inside their Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, commander of the station’s Expedition 63 crew, rang the “ship’s bell” on the research complex and ceremoniously announced the Dragon’s undocking.

Cassidy and his two Russian crewmates — Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — will remain aboard the space station until October, when they will return to a landing in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Three fresh crew members will launch to the space station Oct. 14 on a new Soyuz spaceship.

During their two-month stay, Hurley and Behnken assisted Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner with space station duties, performing experiments and maintenance. Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to replace batteries on the space station’s solar power modules.

“Chris, we just can’t thank you enough,” Hurley said in a radio exchange with Cassidy shortly after undocking. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to be part of Expedition 63 with you, Anatoly and Ivan. It’s been a great two months and we appreciate all you’ve done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight.”

Hurley also thanked NASA mission controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and SpaceX teams in Hawthorne, California, for their support.

“We look forward to splashdown tomorrow,” Hurley said. “Also like to wish you great success on the rest of your expedition and a safe flight home in the fall. Take care, friend.”

“Bob and Doug, wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments,” Cassidy replied. “It’s been a real pleasure. It’s been an honor to serve with you. Safe travels and have a successful landing. Endeavour’s a great ship. Godspeed.”

A series of rocket burns maneuvered the crew capsule a safe distance away from the space station, and the astronauts planned to begin an eight-hour sleep period at 11:40 p.m. EDT (0340 GMT).

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

Hurley and Behnken will close out their 64-day test flight — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — Sunday with a braking burn to drop out of orbit and enter the atmosphere, targeting a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida.

“Our mission isn’t over,” Hurley said Saturday before undocking. “The DM-2 test flight is, in some ways, just two-thirds complete. We did the ascent, rendezvous and the docking. We completed our docked objectives, and now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase.”

“The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home,” Behnken said.

The astronauts are scheduled to wake up at 7:40 a.m. EDT (1140 GMT) Sunday to begin preparations for their return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken will pack bags and ready the spaceship’s cabin for entry. They will also drink fluids in a process known as “fluid loading” aimed at easing their adaptation to Earth’s gravity after two months in orbit.

Assuming a final assessment of weather and sea conditions look favorable in the recovery zone near Pensacola, the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft — flying on autopilot — will jettison its unpressurized trunk section at 1:51 p.m. EDT (1751 GMT). The trunk is attached to the rear of the Dragon’s crew module, and contains the ship’s power-generating solar panels and radiators used to shed the spacecraft’s internal heat into space.

The trunk will remain in a relatively low orbit and will naturally fall back into the atmosphere and burn up.

Meanwhile, the Dragon crew module will maneuver into the proper orientation for a deorbit burn using the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters. The braking maneuver will begin at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT) and last more than 11 minutes, slowing the ship’s velocity by nearly 168 mph, or 75 meters per second.

That change in velocity will allow Earth’s gravity to pull the spacecraft back into the atmosphere, which will do most of the rest of the work to slow Dragon’s speed for splashdown.

The spacecraft will close its forward nose cone at 2:11 p.m. EDT (1811 GMT) before it plunges into the discernible atmosphere at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT), moving at some 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour).

Hurley and Behnken will be wearing their SpaceX-made flame-resistant pressure suits during entry, the same garments they wore during their launch May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Diagram of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

Flying with its blunt end facing the brunt of the airflow, the spacecraft’s heat shield will encounter temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius) as it dives into the atmosphere.

The build-up of super-heated around the capsule is expected to interrupt communications with the crew for about six minutes during entry. Engineers expect to restore communications with the astronauts once Dragon Endeavour comes out of the hottest part of entry at around 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT).

Drogue parachutes will release from the top of the capsule at 2:44 p.m. EDT (1844 GMT), followed by the deployment of four orange and white main parachutes about a minute later.

The drogue chutes will deploy when Dragon Endeavour is descending through about 18,000 feet, or 5,500 meters, when the capsule is moving at approximately 350 mph, or more than 550 kilometers per hour. The four main chutes come out at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, or 1,800 meters, and at a velocity of around 119 mph, or 191 kilometers per hour.

The parachutes will slow the capsule’s speed for a gentle splashdown at 2:48 p.m. EDT (1848 GMT) in the Gulf of Mexico, targeting a location just south of the Alabama-Florida border.

Going into Sunday’s entry and splashdown, mission control identified a backup recovery site in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Florida. SpaceX and NASA have seven Crew Dragon splashdown sites available in total — four in the Gulf and three in the Atlantic — but Tropical Storm Isaias is forecast to move near the mission’s recovery zones off Florida’s East Coast on Sunday.

If weather conditions deteriorate in the Gulf of Mexico, mission control could wave-off Sunday’s return opportunities. NASA officials said the astronauts have food, water and other supplies for at least three days on the Crew Dragon after the undocking Saturday night from the space station.

A SpaceX recovery vessel named “Go Navigator” will be on station in the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve the Crew Dragon spaceship after it splashes down.

Two “fast boats” will deploy from Go Navigator and approach the capsule, which measures around 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and 16 feet (5 meters). After ensuring the spacecraft is safe, the larger recovery boat will take position near the Dragon and hoist the capsule out of the water using a lifting frame.

Once in the Dragon is on the deck of Go Navigator, Hurley and Behnken will disembark the capsule and undergo medical checks.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said the recovery ship will have around 44 people on-board, including SpaceX and NASA officials, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. Spacecraft technicians will also be aboard to recover and secure the Dragon capsule.

After an initial health assessment, Hurley and Behnken will ride a helicopter to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they will board a NASA aircraft for the flight back to their home base in Houston.

SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” Crew Dragon recovery ship. Credit: SpaceX

The astronauts are coming back to Earth with around 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of cargo, including frozen experiment specimens, personal gear, and a U.S. flag left on the space station by the final space shuttle crew in 2011.

Hurley was the pilot on the final space shuttle flight.

The flag also flew on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, in 1981. The final shuttle crew left it on the space station to be returned by the next astronauts to fly to the research lab on a U.S. spacecraft.

In the end, SpaceX won the “capture the flag” competition on the high frontier.

NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to develop and fly new U.S.-built commercial crew capsules to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, following several years of preliminary design work.

SpaceX launched a successful unpiloted Crew Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in March 2019, then overcame a setback during ground testing of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system last year. After redesigning part of the abort system, and verifying new modifications to the capsule’s parachutes, SpaceX launched the first Crew Dragon mission with astronauts May 30.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule launched into orbit for its first unpiloted test flight last December, but it ran into software problems that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the space station. Boeing recovered the spacecraft with a successful landing in New Mexico, but officials plan to re-fly the uncrewed demonstration mission later this year before clearing the Starliner to carry astronauts for the first time in 2021.

With the Crew Dragon on the cusp of completing its first round-trip space mission with astronauts, SpaceX and NASA will analyze data from the Demo-2 test flight before formally certifying the commercial capsule for operational crew rotation launches.

The first such regular crew rotation flight, named Crew-1, is scheduled for launch this fall on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. Four astronauts are assigned to the Crew-1 flight, and NASA last week announced the crew assignments for the Crew-2 mission in the spring of 2021, the second operational Crew Dragon mission to the space station.

Subsequent Crew Dragon missions to the space station will also launch with up to four passengers, and the spaceship — once certified after Demo-2’s return — will be capable of missions lasting up to 210 days.

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Live coverage: Dragon crew ready to head home

Live coverage of the undocking, re-entry and splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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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

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

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.