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NASA astronauts on overnight trip in SpaceX capsule begin descent home

Behnken and Hurley's homecoming will also mark the first crewed splashdown in an American capsule in 45 years. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning.

Reuters | Washington DC | Updated: 02-08-2020 23:47 IST | Created: 02-08-2020 23:37 IST
NASA astronauts on overnight trip in SpaceX capsule begin descent home
Representative image Image Credit: Twitter(@ElonMusk)

U.S. astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX's new Crew Dragon, were riding the capsule home for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a two-month voyage that was NASA's first crewed mission from home soil in nine years. Behnken and Hurley undocked from the station late on Saturday to begin their 21-hour trip home aboard Crew Dragon "Endeavor," gradually decreasing their orbital altitude overnight and awaking Sunday morning to recorded wake-up calls from their sons.

"Good morning Dragon Endeavor," Hurley's son said in a recorded message sent to the capsule. "I'm happy you went into space but I'm even happier that you're coming back home." NASA and SpaceX mission control teams in Houston, Texas and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California gave the "go" call for Crew Dragon's deorbit burn, where the capsule commits to reentering Earth's atmosphere roughly one hour before it is due to splash down off Florida's Pensacola coast at 2:48 p.m. ET.

For the return sequence before splashdown, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes will work autonomously to slow the capsule, bringing Behnken and Hurley's speed of 17,500 miles per hour in orbit down to 350 mph upon atmospheric reentry, and eventually 15 mph at splashdown. The acorn-shaped capsule's outer shell will withstand temperatures as high as 3,500 Fahrenheit upon reentry while Behnken and Hurley, wearing SpaceX's white flight suits strapped inside the cabin, will experience 85 Fahrenheit.

"The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home," Behnken said during a farewell ceremony on Saturday before leaving the space station. NASA and SpaceX officials ruled out splashdown options in the Atlantic earlier this week to avoid running into Tropical Storm Isaias, a cyclone forecast to churn alongside Florida's east coast in the coming days.

Upon a successful splashdown, the spacecraft will have completed its final key test to prove it can transport astronauts to and from orbit — a feat no private company has ever accomplished before. The crew will spend up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieve them for a helicopter trip ashore. There the duo will undergo medical checks ahead of a flight to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The landmark mission, launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the U.S. space agency launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011. Since then the United States has relied on Russia's space program to launch its astronauts to the space station. Behnken and Hurley's homecoming will also mark the first crewed splashdown in an American capsule in 45 years.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning. NASA officials have said Crew Dragon, an acorn-shaped pod with seven astronaut seats, has been in a "very healthy" condition since docking to the space station, where astronauts conducted tests and monitored how the spacecraft performs over time in space when it was docked to the station.

NASA, aiming to galvanize a commercial space marketplace, awarded nearly $8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing Co collectively in 2014 to develop dueling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.


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