NASA-SpaceX crew begins return journey from International Space Station

Four astronauts who arrived at the International Space Station in April for a long-duration science mission began their journey back to Earth on Monday after their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule separated from the orbiting laboratory for the flight home.

The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavor, undocked from the space station as planned shortly after 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) in a process streamed live on a NASA webcast, with a video showing the tethered astronauts. to the cockpit in their white helmeted flight suits.

Operating autonomously, the spacecraft began its departure with a 90-minute flight around the space station as the crew took a series of topographic photographs of the orbiting outpost, circling the globe at about 250 miles (400 km). ) Tall.

The Crew Dragon then proceeded to a series of maneuvers throughout the day to bring it closer to Earth and align the capsule for its final night descent.

Powered by a final firing of its forward rocket boosters for “out-of-orbit combustion,” the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at about 17,000 miles per hour (27,359 kph) for a free fall into the ocean, during which the crew communications were lost for several minutes.

Astronauts from ESA, NASA and JAXA arrive to board the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule, at Cape Canaveral (credit: NASA)

The frictional heat generated when the capsule passes through the atmosphere typically sends temperatures surrounding the exterior of the vehicle at 3,500 degrees F (1,927 degrees C).

Astronaut flight suits are designed to keep them cool if the cabin gets hot, while a heat shield protects the capsule from incineration.

Recovery vessels were shown heading towards the waterproof Crew Dragon as it bobbed upright in the water.

The crew consists of two NASA astronauts: mission commander Shane Kimbrough, 54, and pilot Megan McArthur, 50, along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and mission specialist. Thomas Pesquet, 43, a French engineer from the European Space Agency.

They were raised to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off April 23 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It was the third crew put into orbit under NASA’s fledgling public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, who also founded the electric car maker Tesla Inc.

The returning team was designated “Crew 2” because it marks the second “operational” space station team NASA has launched aboard a SpaceX capsule since it resumed manned spaceflight from US soil last year, after a hiatus. age nine at the end of the US space shuttle program in 2011.

The replacement team, “Crew 3,” was originally scheduled to fly to the space station in late October, but that launch has been delayed due to weather issues and an unspecified medical issue involving one of the four crew members. .

One irregularity that returning Crew 2 faced was a leak in the pipes on board the capsule that put the ship’s toilet out of service, forcing the astronauts to relieve themselves in their underwear. spacesuits if nature called them during the flight home, according to NASA.

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