Four astronauts are getting ready to leave the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, bringing their five-month mission to the orbital laboratory to a close.
The astronauts have set a new record for the longest time spent in space by a crew on a spacecraft designed in the United States.
The crew is scheduled to board their spacecraft on Saturday evening, which has been docked to the space station’s docking ports since the astronauts arrived in November.
Around 8.30 p.m. ET (10:30 a.m. AEST), they’ll disembark from the ISS and spend the night in their capsule while it free-flies through space.
The spacecraft will use its on-board engines to safely cut down into Earth’s thick atmosphere, then use a series of parachutes to slow its descent before splashing down off the coast of Florida on Sunday at about 2.57 a.m. ET (4:57 p.m.). As the vehicle glides into the ocean with a plume of four large parachutes billowing overhead, a brigade of rescue ships will be positioned in the Gulf of Mexico.
The recovery teams will make every effort to return as soon as possible. The bobbing waves can cause extreme seasickness in astronauts during ocean splashdowns.
When asked what meal he was looking forward to when he returned home, NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins admitted that he probably won’t be in the mood for a fine dining experience.
Mr Hopkins said during a remote press conference on Monday, “If I have an appetite, that’s going to be a bonus.”
Authorities are keeping a close watch on the water in the area for any potential intruders.
A crowd of unidentified, flag-waving boats encroached on the recovery area during the Crew Dragon Demo-2 splashdown in August. However, Coast Guard crews are reportedly deployed around the perimeter in the hopes of avoiding a repetition of the incident.
The capsule has a functioning toilet, and the astronauts — NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut — will have time to sleep as the fully autonomous vehicle orbits as SpaceX and NASA officials in Houston, Texas, and Hawthorne, California, keep an eye on the journey.
Mr. Walker has been the space station commander, and on Tuesday, she formally handed over command to Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who arrived at the ISS last week aboard a separate SpaceX spacecraft.
The crew’s arrival on Sunday will mark the end of a historic journey for NASA and SpaceX: it will be the first fully operational crewed mission for the Crew Dragon spacecraft, following a test mission to the space station in May that carried NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, both test pilots.
Following the return of Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley from SpaceX’s Demo-2 flight in August, this is only the second time SpaceX and NASA have ever taken astronauts home on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Mr. Behnken had mentioned reentry as the most harrowing part of the journey back.
Owing to rapid air compression and friction from air molecules rubbing against the spacecraft’s exterior, the spacecraft becomes incredibly hot, yet the astronauts within will be protected by a thick heat shield as the vehicle roars toward its target: “It doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a computer. It sounds like an animal, doesn’t it? “Last year, Mr. Behnken told reporters.
This mission, known as Crew-1, is not a test, however. Prior to the Crew-1 launch in November, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was formally classified as a spacecraft capable of carrying people, paving the way for it to begin making the trip reasonably routinely, carrying astronauts from a variety of backgrounds.
Mr. Walker and Mr. Noguchi, for example, have physics backgrounds. During their five-month stay on the ISS, the team performed studies, including investigations into how microgravity affects human heart tissue.
They also went on space walks to update and fix the exterior of the space station, and they grew radishes as part of research into how food could be developed to support deep-space exploration missions.
According to Hopkins, the astronauts were able to eat some of the crops they grew at a recent press conference.
“I think we’d all agree that having fresh [food] up here is incredible,” Hopkins said.
Glover’s mission to space was his first, and his assignment was historic since he became the first black person to work full-time on the International Space Station.
“The first time I got out of my seat after (our spacecraft) was safely in orbit and looked out the window and saw the Earth from 250 miles (400 kilometers) away,” Mr Glover said.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget… It had nothing to do with the view. It was the feeling I got from the view…the world is incredible. It’s stunning. We should work hard to defend it because it benefits us.”
Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the United States went nearly a decade without the opportunity to send astronauts into space, forcing NASA to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, which the space agency claims left the multibillion-dollar orbital laboratory understaffed.
In 2009, there were up to 13 astronauts on board at any given time. In some occasions, the number has fallen to as low as three, leaving fewer people to help run experiments and keep the space station in good working order. However, with the most recent SpaceX flights, the workforce expanded to 11 people.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which for the first time in NASA’s history delegated much of the design, production, and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector, produced the Crew Dragon capsule.
NASA awarded fixed-price contracts to SpaceX and Boeing worth US$2.6 billion and US$4.2 billion (AUD $3.37 billion and $5.44 billion, respectively) to complete the project.
Because of major software issues discovered during a test mission last year, development of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is still on hold, but officials predict the vehicle may be ready this year.