NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are returning to Earth after a two-month mission to the International Space Station, marking the first time that a private spacecraft will return astronauts from the space station to Earth.
The crew left the space station on Saturday afternoon aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the same spacecraft that led them to orbit on the vessel’s first manned flight. After checking for leaks, the astronauts lowered the visors of their helmets, and a command to undock was sent to the spacecraft at 7:30 pm Eastern time.
Two sets of hooks were disconnected and the capsule slowly began to float away from the space station around 7:35 am. Several engine thrusters fired to further separate the spacecraft from the space station.
At 7:40, all that could be seen from the capsule from the point of view of the space station were two points of light.
“It was an honor and a privilege,” said Hurley in the communications system as the capsule moved away from the space station. “It was an excellent two months and we appreciate everything you did as a team to prove Dragon on your maiden flight.”
The last major test of the capsule will be on Sunday, when it is scheduled for 2:41 pm (GMT), in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, near Pensacola, Florida.
There were seven possible landing sites along the Florida coast; three in the Atlantic Ocean are on the way to tropical storm Isaias.
The explosion will mark the first time in 45 years that astronauts have returned to space through an oceanic landing.
The last such landing took place in July 1975, when an Apollo capsule fell into the Pacific Ocean during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program Mission.
Since then, spacecraft have landed on solid ground – the NASA space shuttle has landed on a runway and the Russian Soyuz capsule lands in Kazakhstan.
A success on Sunday would dominate a test mission that has so far gone well for Hawthorne-based SpaceX.
The company led by Elon Musk developed its Crew Dragon capsule under a NASA contract with the intention of one day regularly transporting NASA astronauts to the space station. The robust aerospace Boeing Co. is also developing its own Starliner capsule under a NASA contract for this purpose.