NASA is currently planning to return astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft in about two weeks, the space agency told CNBC on Friday.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon "Endeavour" docked with the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA
The spacecraft, which the astronauts named Endeavour, is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 2 at about 3 p.m. ET, according to NASA's Johnson Space Center public affairs officer Kyle Herring.
Herring noted that the departure time from the International Space Station "is a bit of a moving target," but said the spacecraft is scheduled to un-dock at about 8 p.m. ET on Aug. 1. NASA will look more closely at the weather forecasts for where the spacecraft might splash down after the astronauts perform a spacewalk next week.
Splashdown and recovery would mark the conclusion of NASA and SpaceX's Demo-2 mission, which launched successfully on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida on May 30. The mission is the first time that Elon Musk's space company has launched people with its spacecraft.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule splashed into the Atlantic Ocean after completing its test flight for NASA. Photo Credit: NASA TV
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been taking part in various scientific and maintenance work at the Space Station since their arrival, including Behnken taking part in four spacewalks, with three already completed and one planned for next week – a major upcoming endeavor cited by Herring as something that’ll require focus ahead of more concrete return trip planning. This first crewed Dragon flight is actually still a demonstration mission, not an official operational ISS crew launch, but NASA made the call to extend it to include Behnken and Hurley contributing to regular station operations during their time on orbit.
This return trip is just as critical to the overall success of SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew collaboration as was the May launch; it’s obviously vital that SpaceX’s crew spacecraft be able not only to get astronauts to the Space Station reliably, but also to get them back home again safely, too.
During this return leg of the trip, the Crew Dragon capsule will perform an automated undocking and return flight maneuver, with Behnken and Hurley aboard. It’ll enter the Earth’s atmosphere and slow its descent once it’s in with a parachute system designed and tested by SpaceX, hopefully leading to a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean for the astronauts, where they’ll be retrieved by a SpaceX dedicated retrieval crew.
Weather conditions need to be right for a return trip to proceed – and for this Demo-2 mission, the tolerances around what kind of wind speeds are allowable for the mission to proceed are pretty tight. That said, August tends to be a relatively calm month wind-wise in the target splashdown area, so that should help.