Historic NASA-Manned SpaceX Capsule Departs, Prepares For Splash Landing

Dragon Capsule, the NASA-manned SpaceX capsule launched back in May, departed from the International Space Station (ISS) for Earth on Saturday evening, ushering in the final phase of a historic mission that sent astronauts into space on a privately built craft.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts on board the Dragon Capsule, will spend about 19 hours in-flight before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Pensacola and out of the path of Tropical Storm Isaias, which could reportedly strengthen into a hurricane and make landfall on the East Coast.

“It will be very busy, there won’t be a lot of looking out the window,” said Hurley during a press conference on Friday, less than 48 hours before the planned departure.

“Where we sit in the vehicle, we can see through those forward windows somewhat, but mostly we’ll be focused on the displays and systems of Dragon,” he said.

This will also be the first time NASA will attempt a crewed water landing since 1975, when astronauts concluding a joint space mission with the Soviet Union made splash-down, a physically demanding way to land, in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii.

“We’ve exercised very hard while we’ve been up here, and we’re just trying to put ourselves in the best posture to deal with those affects,” said Hurley, who later added that, should motion sickness become a problem, bags would remain accessible.

“If that needs to happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened in a space vehicle,” said the astronaut.

Despite the unprecedented nature of landing a manned private spacecraft — particularly landing one in the Gulf of Mexico, which astronomer Jonathan McDowell told The Washington Post has never been a landing site for astronauts before — Behnken told reporters during the press conference on Friday that he isn’t too worried about the mission. 

“I still don’t feel nervous about it and really, we’re focused on the things that we’ll need to do to be as safe as possible,” he said.

“I think every space flight for most of us,” said Hurley, “is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and this one probably is a great topper at least for me personally.”

If all goes according to plan, Dragon Capsule will undergo a “departure phasing burn” shortly after midnight, while the astronauts sleep, in order to prepare the orbital path for splashdown Sunday afternoon. The spacecraft will then slow down during a “deorbit burn” at around 1:51 pm EST, with expected splashdown 57 minutes later.

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