Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who were launched to the International Space Station on, plan to return to Earth on August 2, weather permitting. The pair will descend by parachute to an ocean splashdown to close out a historic 64-day test flight.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine posted a tweet Friday to make the landing target official, warning “weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned.”
The weather also will drive the splashdown location. NASA and SpaceX plan to deploy recovery crews to landing sites in the Gulf of Mexico and off Florida’s East Coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Multiple sites in both areas are available and while weather is historically better in the Gulf at this time of year, no final decisions will be made until shortly before undocking.
Wherever they land, Hurley and Behnken will be met by a SpaceX recovery ship and crews trained to quickly haul the capsule on deck and help the astronauts get out as they begin readjusting to gravity after two months in weightlessness. Splashdown will mark NASA’s first ocean recovery since the Apollo-Soyuz test mission 45 years ago this week.
“Probably the biggest area of concern is just how long it’s been since humans have done this on the U.S. side, splashing down in the water and then being recovered,” Behnken told The Washington Post in a recent interview.
“One of the luxuries that we do have is that the SpaceX team brings cargo missions back from the International Space Station,” he said. “They’ve done that many times at this point, and they’ve recovered those capsules pretty successfully and managed to get the timeline relatively short so that we expect to be back on the ship within an hour of splashdown.”
The astronauts will remain inside the capsule with its hatches closed until the spacecraft is hauled onto the deck of the SpaceX recovery ship. While returning space station crews are familiar with discomfort from the readjustment to gravity, riding in a bobbing capsule, albeit briefly, could make it even tougher.
“Everybody’s body is different coming back from space, you know? Some people do really well, and some people do pretty poorly and then everything in between,” Hurley told CBS News before launch. “The one thing I think we’re certain of is water landings (are) going to exacerbate that to some degree. We’ll just do the best we can. … Landing in the water, it’s not ideal. But that’s just part of the process.”
Strapped into a Crew Dragon capsule, Hurley and Behnken blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket on May 30 to kick off the first piloted flight of U.S. astronauts from American soil since the space shuttle’s final mission in July 2011.
They docked with the International Space Station the next day, joining NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
Along with putting the Crew Dragon through its paces, Behnken and Hurley have assisted Cassidy with a full slate of research and maintenance since their arrival. Behnken joined Cassidy for three spacewalks to replace aging batteries in the lab’s solar power system and they have a fourth excursion planned for next Tuesday.