WASHINGTON: The two NASA astronauts who rode to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX's new Crew Dragon are due to return on Sunday (Aug 2) after a two-month voyage that marked NASA's first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.
US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who launched to the space station in May, are expected to board Crew Dragon around 5.30pm and splash down at one of seven landing sites in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean at about 2.48pm on Sunday.
"The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home," Behnken said during a farewell ceremony early on Saturday aboard the space station.
NASA and SpaceX officials chose the coast of Pensacola, Florida as the "prime" splashdown location for Crew Dragon on Sunday, but that selection may change between other sites in the Gulf of Mexico as the Air Force's 45th Space Wing monitors the path of Hurricane Isaias, a category 1 cyclone approaching Florida's east coast.
"We have plenty of opportunities here in August and we're in no hurry to come home," NASA's commercial crew manager Steve Stich said, adding the next return opportunity opens on Monday should Isaias force a delay.
Stich said Crew Dragon, an acorn-shaped pod that can seat up to seven astronauts, has been in a "very healthy" condition since docking on May 31 with the space station, where astronauts have been conducting tests and monitoring how the spacecraft performs in space.
Upon a successful splashdown, the spacecraft will have completed its final key test to prove it can 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.
"The water landing portion of it is pretty challenging from a physiological standpoint, just after coming back from being in microgravity," Hurley, a veteran of two shuttle missions, told reporters in a phone briefing on Friday.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit in May with the launch of Behnken and Hurley, who will have spent more than two months on the space station upon returning.
The mission marked the first time NASA launched humans from US 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.
Hoping to galvanise a commercial space marketplace, NASA awarded nearly US$8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing Co collectively in 2014 to develop duelling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.