A gumdrop-shaped fireball is set to plummet to Earth on Wednesday.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, carrying four astronauts for NASA, is scheduled to plow through the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound, deploy four parachutes as it approaches the coast of Florida, then glide to a gentle splashdown in the ocean at about 12:40 p.m ET.
The spaceship, named Resilience, flew to the International Space Station in November, carrying Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins of NASA, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The astronauts have been living and working in orbit for more than five months – the longest human spaceflight in US history.
Their mission, called Crew-1, officially restored NASA’s ability to launch people to space on its own spacecraft for the first time since the Space Shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Six-month spaceflights have been routine for NASA astronauts launching on Russian Soyuz spaceships, but until now, the US had never flown such long-term missions on its own.
Crew-1 was also SpaceX’s first routine astronaut flight for NASA. The agency has already purchased five more Crew Dragon missions. The second one, Crew-2, launched four more astronauts on Friday and reached the ISS on Saturday morning.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi greeted the new arrivals, but the ISS is now crowded. So on Wednesday morning, the Crew-1 team will climb back aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience for the journey home.
SpaceX has flown humans back to Earth from the ISS once before – on a crewed test flight called Demo-2. In May, that mission rocketed NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. They stayed on the ISS for two months before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.
During Behnken and Hurley’s return to Earth, however, a crowd of onlooker boats got dangerously close to the spaceship after it splashed down. To prevent that from happening again, SpaceX, NASA, and the Coast Guard plan to secure a 10-mile no-boat perimeter around the Crew-1 splashdown site.
Watch live as Crew-1 returns to Earth
NASA will broadcast the entire day’s events via the livestream below, starting at 4:45 a.m. ET.
The entire descent and landing process is automated, but Hurley advised the Crew-1 astronauts to make sure they’re “staying ahead of the capsule,” according to Hopkins, who is the mission commander.
“Preparing for that landing is just going over our procedures and making sure, when we get into that sequence of events, that we’re ready to go, and we’re following right along with all of the automation as it takes us to, hopefully, a safe landing,” he told reporters in a call from the ISS on Monday.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi will board the Resilience capsule and close its hatch behind them at 5 a.m. ET. After two hours of checkouts, the hooks keeping Resilience attached to the space station should retract at 7:05 a.m. ET, undocking the spaceship from the ISS. The vehicle will then fire its thrusters to back away.
If all goes well, Resilience will spend the next few hours orbiting Earth and maneuvering into position. Then the capsule will jettison its trunk – a lower section outfitted with fuel tanks, solar panels, and other hardware – which the astronauts will no longer need.
From there, the Crew-2 astronauts could be in for a very bumpy ride.
“The landing was – I would say it was more than what Doug and I expected,” Behnken told reporters after he returned to Earth aboard the spaceship. “I personally was surprised at just how quickly events all transpired.”
“It felt like we were inside of an animal,” he added.
Behnken also said that pivotal moments of the landing process – like when the capsule separated from its trunk and when the parachutes deployed – felt “very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat.”
As the Resilience spacecraft approaches Earth, it will fire its thrusters continuously, pushing itself further into the atmosphere.
Soon, the spaceship will be plummeting through the atmosphere, superheating the material around it to a blistering 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, Behnken said, he could feel the capsule heating up, and the force of Earth’s gravity pulling on him for the first time in two months. It felt like being in a centrifuge, he added.
The Crew Dragon’s heat shield – a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spaceship’s underbelly – must deflect that super-heated material to protect the astronauts inside. After the Demo-2 landing, NASA and SpaceX found that one of those tiles had worn away more than expected. So SpaceX reinforced the heat shield with stronger materials.
Once it’s about 18,000 feet above the ocean, Resilience should deploy four parachutes – which brings a “pretty significant jolt,” according to Behnken.
From there, Resilience should glide to a gentle splashdown in the ocean at 12:40 p.m. ET. A recovery crew will be waiting to retrieve the charred capsule and carry the astronauts to shore.
“Landings are always fairly dynamic, particularly with the capsules like this, particularly when the chutes are opening. So that’s always a little bit exciting,” Hopkins said.
When asked what he’d like to eat upon returning from the ISS, he replied: “If I have an appetite, that’s going to be a bonus.”