1 of 5 | NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts talk about their Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station on Monday as they prepare to depart: NASA's Shannon Walker (L to R), Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Image courtesy of NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., April 30 (UPI) -- NASA plans the return of SpaceX's Crew-1 mission astronauts from the International Space Station as soon as early Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, the space agency said Friday afternoon.
Controllers plan to undock the Crew Dragon capsule Resilience at 8:55 p.m. EDT Saturday for the flight back to Earth. A nighttime splashdown is planned no earlier than 2:57 a.m. EDT Sunday, according to a press release.
The exact location of splashdown depends on the weather, with concerns about a safe splashdown canceling plans Wednesday and Friday.
During SpaceX's Demo-2 mission in August, controllers changed the splashdown location from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico due to stormy conditions.
The capsule will fly robotically unless there is a serious problem, crew commander Mike Hopkins in a news conference Monday from the space station.
"Your landings are always fairly dynamic, particularly with the capsules like this, particularly when the chutes are opening, so that's always a little bit exciting," Hopkins said.
He and the crew will monitor the progress of the flight closely, to stay ahead of what the Crew Dragon is doing.
Such vigilance was a recommendation, Hopkins said, from the last astronauts to come home in a Dragon capsule -- Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley -- on Aug. 2 during the Demo-2 mission.
"That's something that all of us have been focusing on over the last few days -- preparing for that landing ... and making sure we're following right along with all of the automation as it takes us, hopefully, a safe landing," Hopkins said.
NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi will be in the capsule with Hopkins.
The Crew-1 mission marks the first time four people flew in a space capsule and was only the second crewed launch for SpaceX and NASA's commercial crew program.
The best part of the mission was greeting the Crew-2 astronauts, who arrived on Saturday morning at the space station, Noguchi said in the press conference. That arrival boosted the population of the space station to 11 for the first time in years.
"Seeing all four friends come into the space station, yeah, this is our community. We have a great camaraderie," Noguchi said. "The dinner [that day] was great. So, meeting people here is even greater than compared to Earth."
The Crew-1 mission was launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 15, before vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic became available. The crew intend to be vaccinated in the coming weeks, the astronauts said.
Glover will be returning from space for the first time, having notched a record as the first Black person to live aboard the space station for an extended period.
"One thing that did really profoundly impact me was the very first time I ... looked out the window and saw the Earth from 250 miles up; I will never forget that moment," Glover said. "Earth is amazing. It's beautiful. It protects us, so we should work hard to protect it."
SpaceX and NASA have promised to police the area around the splashdown better than in August, when private citizens carrying Trump flags buzzed around the capsule as recovery vessels arrived.
The reason for such caution is to protect the boaters, not the astronauts, Hopkins said. Toxic rocket propellant could pose a danger in case of any leaks, he said.
"It's very important for them to stay away and at a safe distance," Hopkins said.
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., on Sunday. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo