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.