Four astronauts who flew to the International Space Station in November aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will return to Earth Wednesday, days after a new crew arrived at the orbiting outpost, also aboard a Dragon ship manufactured by the Hawthorne-based company.
The process of returning to Earth began Tuesday, with NASA astronaut and SpaceX Crew-1 member Shannon Walker formally transferring command of the space station to Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. Hoshide was aboard the SpaceX Crew-2 mission that arrived at the space station early Saturday morning aboard the Crew Dragon spaceship Endeavour.
There are currently 11 total astronauts aboard the space station. But early Wednesday morning, Walker and fellow NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi will crawl back into the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience for their return journey to Earth.
“It’s been an awesome adventure,” Glover — a Pomona native and Southern California resident — said following the change-of-command ceremony Tuesday. “It truly is a privilege to work and to live here, and to be able to do both makes this just a really unique experience. And so as the only rookie in the group, it was really an honor to become a part of an expedition and see what it’s like to fly the International Space Station. And I think 165-ish or so days, it flew by. It has really gone by quickly. I’m grateful for every day of it.”
Hopkins hailed the performance of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the impact private companies like SpaceX will have on space exploration.
“You can see that in terms of how it’s enabled the science on board the space station here by having more crew members on board,” he said. “The amount of science we’ve accomplished over the last six months, I think, is truly incredible.
“… Just seeing how it’s enabling the growth in the private space flight. This vehicle, our wonderful vehicle Crew Dragon Resilience, is scheduled to launch again with a private mission later this year. And so I think that’s another just benefit of what the commercial crew program has brought to human space exploration.”
The hatch of Resilience is expected to close at 2 a.m. California time, with the spaceship scheduled to undock from the station at 4:05 a.m.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft is designed to undock autonomously — without assistance from the astronauts aboard — and begin the trip back to Earth. The ship is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico around 9:40 a.m. California time, landing in one of seven pre-selected landing zones. Two primary splashdown locations have already been chosen, but the actual landing spot could vary depending on conditions during the return flight.
When the splashdown location is finalized, the U.S. Coast Guard will establish a 10-nautical-mile safety zone to accommodate the recovery operation.
“All of us, as you can imagine, are very excited about splashdown, about what it’s going to enable, and that’s the return to our families,” Hopkins said. “I think all of us are looking forward to that.”
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