The two Crew Dragon astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station answered some questions about next month’s return trip in an interview session with reporters on Tuesday.
NASA’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived at the space station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule at the end of May, marking the first astronaut use of the spacecraft, as well as the first launch from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
Behnken said it’s too early to ink a return date because the precise weather conditions need to be examined nearer the time, though he expects they’ll depart the space station in early-to mid August.
The astronaut, who recently completed two spacewalks with colleague Chris Cassidy, added that toward the end of July, he and Hurley will start focusing on the trip home in a crucial operation that will mark the first time for the Crew Dragon to bring astronauts back from space.
“In about three weeks we’ll get a good solid review of all the procedures we need to be familiar with prior to entry,” Behnken said. “[We need to] make sure that we understand how the sequence of events — when we slow down and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere — should play out, and we can monitor Dragon’s performance to make sure it’s doing really well.”
The return will involve NASA’s first crewed splashdown since 1975 and is expected to take place off the coast of Florida.
“The splashdown is a little bit of an unknown, at least for our generation of astronauts, and so we’ll want to be at our best when we splash down while we wait for the SpaceX team to pull our capsule out of the water and get us out of the capsule,” Behnken said, adding, “Right now, the biggest focus for Doug and I is taking care of ourselves so that we’re ready — like any astronauts who are coming home — to be in the best physical condition that we can be in.”
Hurley said both he and Behnken have already had several years of training on the Crew Dragon, and while the return trip is mainly an automatic process, they’ll be ready to step in if anything goes awry.
“My seat has the manual push buttons for a lot of those features, if they don’t work automatically … the drogue chutes will come out and we’ll monitor those things, and then the mains will come out, and then the splashdown. With Dragon, it’s an automated vehicle with manual backup capability, so we’ll monitor it and if we have to intervene, that’s what we’ll do.”
In the meantime, there’s still much work to be done aboard the orbiting laboratory, including a couple more spacewalks for Behnken and Cassidy, and, no doubt, more photography sessions for Hurley.