Four astronauts wrapping up a 167-day stay aboard the International Space Station plan a pre-dawn return to Earth Sunday in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico south of Panama City, Florida. Their return was delayed several days due to windy weather.
It will be the second water landing for a piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft and only the third nighttime splashdown in space history, the first in nearly 45 years.
Bidding their seven station crewmates farewell, Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi plan to undock from the Harmony module’s upper port at 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday, kicking off a six-and-a-half hour re-entry sequence.
If all goes well, Hopkins and Glover will monitor an automated 16-minute firing of the spacecraft’s braking thrusters starting at 2:03 a.m. Sunday to lower the far side of their orbit deep into the atmosphere to target the planned Gulf of Mexico landing zone.
Protected by an advanced heat shield, the Crew Dragon is expected to plunge into the lower atmosphere, deploy its four main parachutes and settle to a relatively gentle splashdown at 2:57 a.m.
Unlike SpaceX’s first Gulf landing last August, when pleasure boats surrounded the Crew Dragon that brought Douglas Hurley and Robert Behken home from the space station, the Coast Guard plans to patrol a 10-mile-wide safety zone to keep any early morning onlookers well away.
SpaceX recovery teams will be stationed nearby to pull the capsule aboard a support ship and help the crew out of the spacecraft as they began re-adjusting to gravity. After medical checks, the astronauts will be flown to shore by helicopter and transferred to a NASA jet for a flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Hopkins and company originally planned to land Wednesday, but rough weather prompted SpaceX and NASA to delay undocking to Friday and then to Saturday because of higher-than-allowable winds in the landing zone.
“Crew Dragon is in great health on the space station, and teams now forecast ideal conditions for both splashdown and recovery during the weekend,” NASA said in a statement.
It will be the second splashdown for astronauts aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon and the first water landing at night since two cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz 23 spacecraft came down in a lake in Kazakhstan during a blizzard in 1976.
The only other night splashdown came in 1968 when the Apollo 8 crew, coming home from a Christmas trip around the moon, carried out a planned pre-dawn landing in the Pacific Ocean.