On May 30, SpaceX made history by becoming the first aerospace company to launch two astronauts into space in a private vehicle. Now NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are ready to return to Earth, completing the Crew Dragon capsule’s first manned mission.
Reentry into the atmosphere is as critical a part of the mission as launching, making it a final litmus test to demonstrate that the SpaceX spacecraft is capable of safely transporting people into Earth orbit. It will also mark a new milestone for the United States, which has not sent astronauts to the International Space Station since 2011, with the last flight of the space shuttle (for nine years, NASA has had to pay the Russians to launch their astronauts on missions of the Soyuz program).
Now Behnken and Hurley will be back on the Crew Dragon to oversee their decoupling from the International Space Station before plunging back into space and beginning, at the right time, their re-entry into the dense atmosphere. The thermal shield of the ship will protect astronauts from the intense heat generated during the descent, which will reach temperatures of up to 2000 ºC. Next, the Crew Dragon will deploy four parachutes that will cushion its triumphant dip in the Atlantic Ocean. It will be the first time that SpaceX (or a private company in general) completes a manned mission.
The Crew Dragon is expected to undock from the International Space Station at 19:34 ET on Saturday, August 1. The capsule will slowly drift away from the space station for several hours until its thrusters ignite at 1:56 p.m. ET on Sunday, August 2. The capsule will then exit its orbit, landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast an hour later, around 2:42 p.m. ET. There are seven locations where the Crew Dragon could land, depending on weather conditions. The entire program is subject to change because wind, waves, rain, and possible thunderstorms are limiting factors, particularly in the water.
“Once separated from the space station, the spacecraft must return because it is using consumables on board the vehicle, such as thrusters, oxygen, etc.,” he told The Verge Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX. Most landing opportunities occur 15-17 hours after decoupling, but SpaceX could delay the dip for up to two days if necessary. The Crew Dragon has enough resources on board, such as food, oxygen and fuel, to last up to three days.
Once in the water, Behnken and Hurley will wait inside the Crew Dragon until the two SpaceX recovery ships arrive. The first is designed to lift the capsule out of the water, with a crew of 40 people to help astronauts get out of it. The second will retrieve the parachutes from the ship, which will detach from the capsule after landing. Should there be any kind of emergency with the astronauts, there is a helipad aboard the main ship to evacuate Behnken and Hurley by air rather than by water.
- 8:10 Mexico City / 9:10 Cape Canaveral / 15:10 Madrid: farewell ceremony for the crew at the International Space Station
- 16:00 Mexico City / 17:00 Cabo Cañaveral / 23:00 Madrid: uninterrupted coverage beginsgives the decoupling, re-entry into the atmosphere and the landing of the Crew Dragon capsule
- 16:45 Mexico City / 17:45 Cape Canaveral / 23:45 Madrid: closing of the hatch of the Crew Dragon capsule
- 18:34 Mexico City / 19:34 Cape Canaveral / 1:34 Sunday Madrid: decoupling of the Crew Dragon capsule
- 1:42 p.m. Mexico City Sunday / 2:42 p.m. Cape Canaveral Sunday / 8:42 p.m. Sunday Madrid: Crew Dragon capsule landing in the Atlantic Ocean