A ball of fire in the shape of a gum will descend through the dark skies of Florida overnight.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four NASA astronauts is preparing to plow through the atmosphere at speeds faster than the speed of sound, deploy four parachutes as it approaches the Florida coast, and then glide. to a light splash in the ocean around 2:57 a.m. Sunday morning.
The return journey has already begun. The spacecraft, called Resilience, withdrew from the International Space Station (ISS), carrying Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins of NASA, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Sustainability took these astronauts to the ISS in November. They have lived and worked there ever since.
Their mission, called Crew-1, has officially restored NASA’s ability to launch humans into space on a US spacecraft for the first time since space shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Six-month spaceflight is a routine for NASA astronauts launched into Russia. Soyuz spacecraft, but so far the United States has never carried out such long-term missions on its own.
Crew-1 is also SpaceX’s first astroX astronaut’s flight to NASA. The agency has already purchased five more Crew Dragon missions. The second, Crew-2, launched four more astronauts to the ISS on April 23; they reached the station the next morning.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins and Noguchi welcomed the newcomers, but the ISS was crowded. So on Saturday night, the Crew-1 team boarded the Crew Dragon Resilience for the trip home.
Watch live as Crew-1 returns to Earth
NASA broadcasts the nearly seven-hour voyage – including the fiery immersion of the Earth and the scattering at the end – through the live broadcast below, which began at 18:00 ET on Saturday.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins and Noguchi boarded the Resilience capsule and closed the hatch behind them at 6:20 p.m. ET on Saturday. After about two hours of inspections, the stability hooks attached to the space station returned at 8:35 p.m. ET, disconnecting the spacecraft from the ISS. The vehicle then fired the pushers to retreat.
Crew-1’s return trip was originally scheduled for Wednesday, then Saturday morning, but NASA delayed it twice after forecasts predicted strong winds in the splash zones.
SpaceX once flew humans to Earth from the ISS – in a test flight with a crew called Demo-2. In May, the mission launched NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Benken into orbit. They remained on the ISS for two months before exploding in the Gulf of Mexico.
The entire descent and landing process is automated, but Hurley advised Crew-1 astronauts to make sure they were “ahead of the capsule,” according to Hopkins, the mission’s commander.
“Preparing for this landing is just reviewing our procedures and making sure that when we enter this sequence of events, that we are ready to go and follow exactly along with all the automation that takes us, hopefully, a safe landing,” he said. Hopkins told reporters in a call from the ISS on Monday.
If all goes well, Sustainability is expected to spend the next few hours in orbit around the Earth and maneuver in position. At 22:58 ET, the capsule must discard its trunk – a lower part equipped with fuel tanks, solar panels and other hardware – which it will no longer need.
From there, Crew-1 astronauts could set off.
“The landing was – I’d say it’s more than Doug and I expected,” Benken told reporters after returning to Earth aboard the spacecraft. “I was personally surprised at how quickly all the events happened.”
“We felt like an animal,” he added.
Benken also said that key moments in the landing process – for example, when the capsule detached from the trunk and when the parachutes were deployed – felt “much like hitting the back of a chair with a baseball bat.”
What to expect as astronauts descend to Earth
As the Resilience spacecraft approaches Earth, it is expected to launch its pushers continuously, pushing further into the atmosphere.
Soon the spacecraft must collapse through the atmosphere, overheating the material around it to bubbles of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point in his flight, Benken said, he felt the capsule heat up and the force of gravity attracted him for the first time in two months. It felt like a centrifuge, he added.
Crew Dragon’s heat shield – a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spacecraft’s thighs – must deflect this overheated material to protect astronauts inside. After the landing of Demo-2, NASA and SpaceX found that one of these tiles was worn more than expected. Thus, SpaceX strengthened the heat shield with stronger materials.
Once about 18,000 feet above the ocean, resilience has to deploy four parachutes – resulting in a “pretty significant impact,” Benken said.
From there, the resistance should slide to a slight splash in the ocean at 2:57 p.m. ET on Sunday. A recovery crew is expected to remove the charred capsule and take the astronauts ashore.
On Benken and Hurley’s return to Earth, a crowd of observation boats approached the spacecraft dangerously after it exploded. To prevent this from happening again, SpaceX, NASA and the Coast Guard plan to provide a 10-mile boat-free perimeter around the Crew-1 launch site.
“Landings are always quite dynamic, especially with capsules like this, especially when the chutes open. So it’s always a little exciting,” Hopkins said.
When asked what he would like to eat after returning from the ISS, he replied: “If I have an appetite, it will be a bonus.”
This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on April 26, 2021.
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