Two very special mementos will splash down on Earth with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley who, if schedules hold, will return home Sunday after two months in space.
The Crew Dragon capsule undocked from the International Space Station on time Saturday at 7:35 p.m., and the astronauts will begin their 19-hour trip back to Earth. NASA set splashdown for 2:48 p.m. off the coast of Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico, far from the projected path of Tropical Storm Isaias that's forecast to travel up Florida's east coast. The coast near Panama City is the alternative site.
If the weather worsens, there are enough supplies on board the capsule to last them three days.
"Teams will continue to closely monitor ... Isaias and evaluate impacts to the potential splashdown sites,'' a NASA statement said.
One of the items coming home from the International Space Station is a small American flag that flew on the first and last shuttle missions, first in 1981 with John Young and Bob Crippen on Columbia and then in 2011 with Hurley himself on Atlantis. Hurley has waited almost a decade to retrieve it, with well wishes from then-President Barack Obama who during a call years ago offered "good luck to whoever grabs that flag."
Commander Chris Cassidy, the only American on board the ISS before his two compatriots arrived in May, said the flag "has deep, deep space history, getting deeper as this flag will return to Earth with the Crew Dragon guys and spend a little bit of time on Earth and very soon make a trip to the moon."
"Doug, the flag's all yours," Cassidy said from the ISS on Saturday, passing it to him.
The other item is a pink-and-aqua, sparkly stuffed dinosaur named Tremor, an item Behnken and Hurley's young sons picked for them to take on their trip. The tiny token is part of a long tradition of astronauts bringing into space something that, once it starts floating, tells them they've hit zero-g.
"For Jack and Theo, Tremor the apatosaurus is headed home soon," Behnken said.
The splashdown will be the first water landing of astronauts in 45 years, since the last Apollo mission in 1975. Hurley and Benhken wouldn't concede any nerves, saying they were confident ground teams were watching the weather and that they would not leave the ISS without a safe spot to come home.
"We don't control the weather, and we know we can stay up here longer," Behnken said. "There's more chow. And I know the space station program has got more work we can do."
Immediately after splashdown, two boats will arrive to check the capsule and then a recovery ship will hoist it on board and open the hatch for the Behnken and Hurley. A helicopter will also be on standby in case of emergency.
"The water landing portion of it is pretty challenging from a physiological standpoint after coming back from micro-gravity on the order of one to two months," Hurley said, noting that inside the capsule there will be bags and towels in case either of the two astronauts gets sick.
Behnken and Hurley have been in space for 63 days, following their historic launch from Cape Canaveral aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. It was the first time in nearly a decade that astronauts launched from American soil, a major feat in NASA's goal to send a crewed mission to the moon by 2024.
They joined Cassidy and Russia's Ivan Vagnerand and Anatoly Ivanishin, who have been at the Space Station since April after launching from Kazakhstan aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket.
And since then, they've tested the livability of the Crew Dragon capsule and performed several spacewalks to do upgrades to the ISS. Behnken and Hurley are also bringing back about 330 pounds of cargo, mostly samples stored in freezers from experiments that were performed on the ISS looking into how the human body adapts to micro-gravity and other experiments.
Even after a successful launch and docking in May, though, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he didn't want to celebrate too soon.
"The return is more dangerous in some ways than the ascent," Musk said on a previous call. "So we don't want to declare victory yet. We need to bring them home safely."
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