SpaceX Crew Dragon splashdown faces possible weather delay

After a two-month stay at the International Space Station, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will soon return to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in what will be the first-ever crewed return trip for the vehicle, and the first NASA splashdown in 45 years.

The American space agency is targeting August 1 for the undocking, with the splashdown occurring the following day. But concern over a developing weather system that could cause conditions to deteriorate in the splash zones near Florida may cause the trip to be delayed.

NASA officials discussed the final preparations for the Crew Dragon’s return journey in a meeting on Wednesday, July 30. They’re currently examining a potential tropical cyclone that’s developing in the Caribbean, which, if it comes to fruition, would likely prompt NASA to wait for calmer conditions to prevail.

“The wind speed can’t be any greater than 15 feet per second or about 10 miles per hour,” Steve Stich, commercial crew program manager, said on Wednesday. “This is to protect how the vehicle lands in the water and how the water will come up and surround the vehicle at touchdown.”

Stich added: “We don’t want any rain in the area, we don’t want the parachutes or the vehicle to get rained on [and we don’t want] any lightning.”

After landing in the water, a recovery ship will hoist the Crew Dragon onto the main deck before opening the hatch to allow the astronauts to exit the capsule. A helicopter will then fly the two astronauts from the ship to the shore.

The operation also means that conditions have to be clear and calm for the helicopter pilot tasked with flying Hurley and Behnken back to land. Bad weather could mean poor visibility, and if the ship’s deck is moving around too much in the water, the helicopter won’t be able to land.

Stich said that if the weather begins to look particularly troublesome, then they won’t even think about undocking on Saturday.

“The beauty of this vehicle is that we can stay docked to the space station … and wait for the weather to clear,” he said.

Ahead of the trip back to Earth, Behnken tweeted a photo (below) of the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle docked with the ISS, commenting that his family is very much looking forward to his homecoming.

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