NASA, SpaceX 'Crew Dragon' to return to Earth this weekend if weather permits
NEW ORLEANS- NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, a former Tulane University graduate, and Robert Behnken plan to make their way back to planet Earth this weekend.
The first two astronauts to travel into orbit aboard a commercially developed spacecraft will return in just a few days if an incoming hurricane does not delay those plans.
Onboard the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for two months, the crew mission was the first to launch from US soil in nearly a decade. NASA is hopeful it could also be the first of many if the capsule safely lands off the coast of Florida this weekend.
The astronauts are scheduled to board their Crew Dragon spacecraft, nicknamed Endeavour, and leave the space station around 6:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, August 1, to begin their 19-hour journey home.
Hurricane Isaias is the deciding factor of these plans as it is headed for Florida with potentially dangerous winds and high waves near Crew Dragon landing sites.
On Thursday night, NASA stated teams will continue to monitor the weather before undocking.
The space agency reassures the public that a safe homecoming is their number one priority and both Hurley and Behnken are veteran astronauts and test pilots. The two men are trained to respond to any technical issues that may arise on the new vehicle, and NASA will not officially certify Crew Dragon as a human-rated spacecraft unit until it returns safely.
Although thoroughly planned out, the return trip is riskier than the launch. Crew Dragon will need to glide through Earth's atmosphere at 17,500 miles per hour. According to NASA, rapid air compression and the friction between the air and spacecraft will heat the outside of the spacecraft to about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
In previous experiences reentering the atmosphere, Behken explained the experience as "something pretty severe. "You actually see the light from the atmosphere as it heats up the external portions of the spacecraft. You see some orange lights flickering the plasma as it kinda goes past the windows," he said. "The vehicle's going through something pretty severe — and we'll be hoping it takes care of us as it takes us through entry."
As the Crew Dragon approaches Earth, ti will deploy a small set of parachutes called, "drogue parachutes," which are designed to begin slowing its decent before a large plume of four parachute fans slow the vehicle down even more.
If things go as planned, the spacecraft will be moving at less than 20 miles per hour when it hits the water.
"We have full confidence that the vehicle will perform just like it's supposed to. That being said, it's a completely different entry profile than what we are used to or had been used to in the Space Shuttle," Hurley said in an interview with CNN in June.
This will mark the first time astronauts have landed in water since 1975.
Even after splashdown, water can jostle the vehicle and make it uncomfortable for the crew as they wait for recovery ships to arrive.
"It does take a little bit of time so...we'll both have the appropriate hardware ready should we start feeling a little bit sick," Behnken said during a news conference Friday. The "hardware," the astronauts clarified, will be a paper bag, much like the ones airlines tuck into the seat back pockets for nauseated passengers.
Hurley and Behnken will also need to land in an area with calm weather so that rough winds or high waves do not interfere with the landing or recovery process. Weather conditions are even more serious this time than they were for the takeoff.
These astronauts are no strangers to weather delays. Their first launch in May was canceled due to thunderstorms and during their second, but successful attempt on May 31, storm clouds filled the sky and cleared just moments before takeoff.
If weather prevents Crew Dragon from returning home this weekend, NASA and SpaceX will try again next Wednesday, August 5.
You can watch the return trip here.
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