New York Times

Live: Follow the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Astronaut Return

A beautiful day for a splashdown from space

The first astronaut trip to orbit by a private company is coming to an end. The passengers are two NASA astronauts — Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley — but it could be a first step to more people going to space for a variety of new activities like sightseeing, corporate research and satellite repair.

This flight of the Crew Dragon capsule is being operated by SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, as part of NASA’s efforts to turn over to private enterprise some things it used to do.

NASA has hired two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to provide transportation of astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and SpaceX was the first to be ready to take astronauts to orbit, launching Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley in May.

After 63 days on the space station, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley reboarded the Crew Dragon and undocked from the space station on Saturday evening.

The capsule and its passengers will land in the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola, Fla., on Sunday. Splashdown is scheduled for 2:48 p.m. Eastern time. It will be the first water landing by NASA astronauts since 1975, when the agency’s crews were still flying to and from orbit in the Apollo modules used for the historic American moon missions.

Earlier concerns about the Isaias storm system working its way up the Florida Atlantic coast prompted the selection of the Pensacola splashdown site. NASA and SpaceX officials on Sunday morning described the weather around the landing zone as “picture perfect,” during a live video stream.

Watch the return of the astronauts

NASA Television’s coverage will continue through splashdown. You can watch it in the video player below.

What have the astronauts been doing since they undocked?

Sleeping mostly.

Following a series of thruster firings to put the spacecraft on track with the landing site, the astronauts’ schedule included a full night of rest. The capsule even completed one of its maneuvers while the astronauts were supposed to be sleeping.

Any return journey that exceeds six hours has to be long enough for the crew to get some sleep between undocking and splashdown, Daniel Huot, a NASA spokesman, said in an email.

Otherwise, because of the extended process that leads up to undocking, the crew would end up working more than 20 hours straight, “which is not safe for dynamic operations like water splashdown and recovery,” Mr. Huot said.

On Sunday morning, the astronauts were greeted with a wake up message sent from Earth by their two sons.

What will happen as the spacecraft begins to land?

On Saturday, the Crew Dragon performed a series of thruster burns to move away from the space station and then line up with the splashdown site.

Before leaving orbit, the spacecraft will jettison its bottom half, known as the trunk, which will no longer be needed.

One more thruster burn will cause the capsule to drop out of orbit, headed toward its landing site at sea.

Is it safer to land on water or on land?

Spacecraft can safely return to Earth in either environment.

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules all splashed down in the ocean while Soviet capsules all ended their trips on land. Russia’s current Soyuz capsules continue to make ground landings, as do China’s astronaut-carrying Shenzhou capsules.

The last water landing by NASA astronauts occurred in July 1975 at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, during which an American crew aboard an Apollo module docked in orbit with two Soviet astronauts aboard a Soyuz capsule.

While the crew splashed down safely, a problem with the Apollo spacecraft during re-entry caused fumes from rocket propellant to fill the capsule, causing breathing and eye problems for the astronauts.

When Boeing’s Starliner capsule begins carrying crews to the space station, it will return on land, in New Mexico. SpaceX had originally planned for the Crew Dragon to do ground landings, but decided that water landings, employed for the earlier version of Dragon for taking cargo, simplified the development of the capsule. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, further explained the reasoning on Twitter early on Sunday:

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