Aug 2 (Reuters) - U.S. astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon, were riding the capsule home for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a two-month voyage that was NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.
Behnken and Hurley undocked from the orbital station late on Saturday to begin their 21-hour trip home aboard Crew Dragon “Endeavor,” catching a few hours of sleep before an early Sunday wakeup call from their sons.
“Good morning Dragon Endeavor,” Hurley’s son said in a recorded message sent to the capsule. “I’m happy you went into space but I’m even happier that you’re coming back home.”
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” Behnken’s son insisted. “Don’t worry, you can sleep in tomorrow.”
NASA and SpaceX are monitoring the crew’s return from Houston, Texas and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Officials ruled out splashdown options in the Atlantic earlier this week due to Tropical Storm Isaias, a cyclone expected to churn alongside Florida’s east coast in the coming days.
A successful 2:48 p.m. ET splashdown would mark the completion of a key final test to prove the spacecraft can safely transport astronauts to and from space — a task SpaceX has accomplished dozens of times with its cargo-only capsule but never before with humans aboard.
Since undocking from the station at 7:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, the spacecraft has gradually decreased its orbital altitude through a series of automated thruster firings apparently with no issues.
“The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home,” Behnken said during a farewell ceremony on Saturday before leaving the space station.
The return sequence will begin at 1:51 p.m. ET, kicking off an automated process of additional thruster firings to slow reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, where Crew Dragon’s shell will experience temperatures as high as 3,500 Fahrenheit.
At 18,000 feet the capsule will deploy an initial set of parachutes to slow its 350 mile-per-hour descent before unfurling a final set of parachutes at a 6,000 feet to ease its fall into the water.
The crew will spend up to an hour floating inside the capsule before joint recovery teams from SpaceX and NASA retrieve them for a helicopter trip ashore. There the duo will undergo medical checks ahead of a flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The landmark mission, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the U.S. space agency launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011. Since then the United States has relied on Russia’s space program to launch its astronauts to the space station.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning.
NASA officials have said Crew Dragon, an acorn-shaped pod with seven astronaut seats, has been in a “very healthy” condition since docking to the space station, where astronauts conducted tests and monitored how the spacecraft performs over time in space when it was docked to the station.
NASA, aiming to galvanize a commercial space marketplace, awarded nearly $8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing Co collectively in 2014 to develop dueling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies. (Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Daniel Wallis)