SpaceX’s spacecraft, Crew Dragon, successfully undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) and began its journey back to Earth with two American astronauts on board, NASA images showed. “Separation confirmed. Dragon turned on four output thrusters to get away from @Space_Station, “SpaceX tweeted after the pod uncoupled without issue.”
Thus, the first US astronauts to reach the ISS in a US spacecraft in a decade are on their way back home, despite Hurricane Isaias threatening the coasts of the state of Florida, where the landing will be.
A few hours earlier, both astronauts had said goodbye to the station’s three colleagues, although there was still some uncertainty regarding their trip given the weather conditions in Florida. After hitting the Bahamas, Hurricane Isaias, retrograded to a tropical storm, is heading toward the southern United States and could regain strength in the coming hours. This could complicate the landing of SpaceX, scheduled for Sunday at 14:41 (18:41 GMT) in the Gulf of Mexico.
A site on the coasts of the city of Pensacola (North Florida) was chosen as a “priority” for the landing, with an alternative in the vicinity of Panama City, also in the Gulf of Mexico, if the sea is very rough or the winds are very strong.
“The hardest thing was getting us into orbit, but the most important thing is getting home,” Behnken said a few hours before departure. The operation is delicate, even if last year the Dragon capsule fulfilled this mission without problems. The atmospheric return will test the resistance of the heat shield. Then large parachutes will slow down the descent into the ocean.
Behnken and Hurley have become the first astronauts to be taken to the ISS, located 400 km from Earth, by a private company hired by NASA.
The mission, whose departure had been postponed due to meteorological reasons, was the first of a manned ship launched from US soil. The last one had been in 2011 when the space shuttle program ended. For the past nine years, American astronauts had traveled exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets, priced at about $ 80 million per seat.
If the current mission is certified safe, the United States will no longer depend on Russia to access space.
For $ 3 billion, agreed since 2011 under a fixed-price contract, SpaceX promised NASA six round trips to the ISS with four astronauts on board. French astronaut Thomas Pesquet announced this week that he will travel aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on his second mission to the ISS in the spring of 2021.