SpaceX’s Dragon aims to dodge hurricane for homecoming of two NASA astronauts

Flag handover
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy hands a U.S. flag to his crewmate, Doug Hurley, during a farewell ceremony on the International Space Station. The flag flew into space on the first and the last NASA space shuttle mission, and had been set aside on the space station for the first post-shuttle crew to return to the station on a U.S.-built spacecraft. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA and SpaceX are going ahead with plans to bring NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken home from the International Space Station for a splashdown this weekend, even though Hurricane Isaias is heading for Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Fortunately, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is heading for waters off Florida’s other coast.

NASA said weather conditions are all systems go for the targeted site in the Gulf of Mexico, close to Pensacola, as well as for an alternate site off the coast of Panama City, Fla. That opened the way for preparations to proceed for the Dragon Endeavour to undock at 7:34 p.m. ET (4:34 p.m. PT) today, with a splashdown set for 2:41 p.m. ET (11:41 a.m. PT) Sunday.

The plan could be adjusted, before or after the docking, if the weather forecast changes. NASA and SpaceX had made plans for seven potential splashdown targets, but due to Isaias’ strength, NASA concentrated on the westernmost sites..

Live coverage of the Dragon’s return is due to start at 5:15 p.m. ET (2:15 p.m. PT) and continue through splashdown.

Just as the Dragon’s launch made history in May, its return will go down in space history books as well. It’ll mark the first return of a commercially built and operated U.S. spacecraft from orbit, and the first at-sea return of U.S. astronauts since the topsy-turvy splashdown of NASA’s Apollo-Soyuz crew in 1975.

During a news conference conducted in advance of undocking, Hurley said he had reviewed the Apollo record and acknowledged that splashdowns can be “pretty challenging from a physiological standpoint.”

“Folks didn’t feel well — that’s the way it is with a water landing,” he said. Flight surgeons will be on board the recovery fleet to help the astronauts adjust.

The game plan calls for the Dragon to be hoisted aboard the main recovery ship with a crane, and then for Behnken and Hurley to be extracted from the capsule for the return to shore.

During their 63 days on the space station, Behnken participated in four spacewalks with NASA crewmate Chris Cassidy to upgrade the orbital outpost’s power system. Behnken and Hurley also helped beef up the station’s crew complement, which had been down to three before they arrived.

Cassidy noted that he had been the sole American, working alongside two Russians. “It was lonely conversations I had with myself at dinner prior to their arrival — and with these last two months, it’s been fantastic to have buddies at the chow table to reflect on the day, think about tomorrow and talk about world events,” Cassidy said.

Behnken and Hurley aren’t the only space travelers returning to Earth. Tremor, a plush dinosaur that was used as a zero-G indicator for the Dragon’s launch, will be coming back as well.

The Dragon will also be bringing back a U.S. flag that flew aboard NASA’s first and last space shuttle mission, and was kept on the space station since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011 for the next crew to arrive on a U.S.-built spacecraft.

“The flag’s all yours,” Cassidy said as he handed the flag to Hurley. In an additional historical twist, Hurley was part of the crew who dropped the flag nine years earlier.

“I’m very proud to return this flag home, and see what’s next for it on its journey to the moon,” said Hurley, referring to NASA’s Artemis moon program.

The next SpaceX Crew Dragon launch to the space station is scheduled for as early as next month. And Behnken’s wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, is due to be part of a Dragon crew heading for the station next spring.

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