An area in the Gulf of Mexico just offshore from Pensacola is the primary landing site Sunday for the return of the first U.S. astronauts to launch from American soil since 2011.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced via Twitter Saturday afternoon that the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft would be targeting Pensacola as its primary landing site for Sunday afternoon.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will board the SpaceX Dragon and are scheduled to undock from the International Space Station at 6:34 p.m.
NASA and SpaceX are monitoring weather impacts from Hurricane Isaias which is why the site near Penscacola was selected as the primary landing location, according to a NASA press release.
“So not intuitive, but Isaias may actually help make nice weather on landing a few hundred miles west,” Zebulon Scoville, NASA’s flight director, wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning.
A location near Panama City will serve as the back up location for splashdown for the Dragon spacecraft.
The mission, officially designated SpaceX Demo-2, was a demonstration flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, and the return leg of the trip will mark the final stage in the more than 60-day flight to the International Space Station.
Behnken and Hurley launched from the Kennedy Space Center in May when a Falcon 9 rocket boosted the Dragon spacecraft into orbit 250 miles above the Earth.
If NASA and SpaceX give the return a go, the astronauts will undock from the space station and begin the process of returning to Earth.
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The Dragon spacecraft will be traveling at more than 17,500 mph when in begins to enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and will build up heat as high as 3,500 degrees. The re-entry heat creates a communications blackout between Earth and the spacecraft that will last approximately six minutes, according to NASA.
Once the spacecraft reaches 18,000 feet it will be traveling at 350 mph and it will deploy two drogue parachutes to slow it down further. At 6,000 feet it will be moving at 119 mph when it will deploy four main parachutes that will allow the spacecraft to splash down gently in the Gulf of Mexico.
NASA will be carrying live stream of the return trip beginning at 4:15 p.m. online.
“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go,” Behnken posted on Twitter Saturday from the ISS.
Jim Little can be reached at [email protected] and 850-208-9827.