After six months in orbit, the four astronauts who make up the SpaceX Crew-1 mission are ready to head home.
NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, plus Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi have been living and working on the International Space Station since November. They arrived at the orbital outpost on a SpaceX Crew Dragon, the company's first full-fledged mission to the station, and just last week they welcomed their replacements on Crew-2. Now, it's time to head back to Earth, with the quartet departing on Saturday (May 1), a few days later than their initial April 28 target due to weather at their splashdown site.
"We're excited for both and each are a little different," Walker said during a news conference held Monday (April 26) when asked to compare launch and landing. "Now that we're going home, it's exciting because we don't know quite what to expect, landing on the water under parachutes like this, and it's just exciting that we get to go home and see our friends and family."
The astronauts have good advice on their side from the only humans to have returned to Earth on a SpaceX capsule to date, the Demo-2 test mission's Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. The crew is ready for a "dynamic" arrival, particularly as the parachutes open, Hopkins said during the news conference, adding that he'll be happy if he has an appetite when the capsule splashes down.
"With this new vehicle, and not having landed a lot before [the important thing] is just making sure you're staying ahead of the capsule," Hopkins said Hurley recommended. "That's something that all of us have been focusing on over the last few days, preparing for that landing, just going over our procedures and making sure when we get into that sequence of events that we're ready to go."
NASA is also learning from its previous experience. Hurley and Behnken were met by a flotilla of private boaters, and the agency has said it's working with the Coast Guard to make sure those boats keep a safe distance from the capsule this time. Hopkins noted that during splashdown, a key risk is fuel leaking from the capsule, and on that front the astronauts are much safer inside the capsule than any stray boaters would be in its vicinity.
Meanwhile, the astronauts looked back on their highlights from nearly six months in orbit. As a first-time spaceflyer, Glover had the most expansive answer. "Every single thing we've done up here has been the first time I've been able to do that," he said.
But still one moment stood out: his first glimpse of Earth from orbit.
"I will never forget that moment and I actually recorded it because I really wanted to remember how I felt. It wasn't about the view, it was about how the view made me feel," he said. "Every time I look out the window in the Cupola I still feel the same way. Earth is amazing, it's beautiful, it protects us, and so we should work hard to protect it.
Hopkins also cited the views — for him, from a makeshift bunk aboard the Crew Dragon "Resilience" — in addition to the brief spaceflight the crew made earlier this month to move the capsule between docking ports. Meanwhile, Walker cited the international crew's camaraderie and Noguchi's fondest moment was welcoming the Crew-2 astronauts just days before.
The Crew-1 astronauts also noted that they got to speak with predecessors who had taken part in NASA's 1970s Skylab mission, which held a record for longest spaceflight on a U.S. spacecraft until the Crew-1 flight claimed the title with a flight more than twice the length.
"We actually had an opportunity to talk with one of the astronauts and it was absolutely fantastic," Hopkins said. "The record that they set, I think, is really pretty significant, particularly when you think about how long it stood. I don't anticipate that our record is going to stand that long — and that's a good thing as well."
Perhaps the most striking quality about Crew-1's journey home is the COVID-19 pandemic that has continued to plague Earth. "I know all of us were hoping that when we will land the pandemic would be at a different stage," Walker said. "That being said, people are being vaccinated in the U.S. and so things are looking better."
But the Crew-1 team will return to a host of protective measures they haven't needed while in orbit. First, a standard one: "We'll be actually in semi-quarantine, just like we were before we launched, because when we return our immune systems are a little bit depressed," Walker said.
"We definitely have enjoyed not wearing masks up here," she said, but the crew will be donning them again once on Earth. "That is the right thing to do." And because the U.S. vaccination campaign began about a month after Crew-1 left Earth, the astronauts can look forward to getting their shots. Walker said NASA flight doctors have told the Crew-1 astronauts they will be vaccinated within seven to 10 days of landing.
And of course there's plenty besides the pandemic for the astronauts to adjust to. Glover noted the crew's first priority after splashdown will be seeing their families and spending about six weeks getting their bodies used to gravity again.
Then, the astronauts will hit the road to talk about the mission with partner agencies and the public — and, of course, they'll start wondering whether they might have another spaceflight in their futures, whether on Crew Dragon or on another spacecraft.
"The Dragon is a wonderful vehicle, and I'd be happy to fly many times, but the same applied to the space shuttle and the Soyuz," said Noguchi, who is the first non-U.S. astronaut to have flown all three of those vehicles. "I'll be happy to fly three difficult space vehicles, but now the race is on to who's going to be the first one to fly the fourth different kind." (The next orbital vehicle to fly humans will likely be Boeing's CST-100 Starliner perhaps late this year, followed by NASA's Orion crew capsule.)
But chances are, none of them will be picky. "You don't pass up a ride to space," Glover said.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect NASA's delay of the Crew-1 splashdown date to Saturday, May 1.
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