“They’ve been up there about a month now, floating around on the International Space Station, keeping tabs on their ride home,” reports the Washington Post:
“Certainly, the highlight for both Doug and I was the initial arrival at space station, coming through the hatch again and being on board after several years of working on a new spacecraft,” Behnken said in an interview from the station this week. Since then, he has performed two spacewalks with Cassidy, successfully replacing batteries on the outside of the station… Now, NASA and the astronauts are turning their focus to the return trip. At the moment, the space agency says the soonest Behnken and Hurley could return is Aug. 2.
If all goes well, the Dragon would undock from the station, fire its thrusters and descend through the atmosphere. The entire mission is a test to see how SpaceX’s Dragon capsule performs, and while NASA said its ascent went flawlessly, there still are many risks ahead. As it plunges down, the thickening air will cause friction and generate enormous heat, testing the capsule’s heat shield. Then the spacecraft’s parachutes are to deploy to slow the vehicle further. SpaceX has struggled with its parachute designs in the past, however. “Parachutes are way harder than they look,” Elon Musk said in an interview with The Post before the launch. “The Apollo program actually had a real morale issue with the parachutes because they were so damn hard. They had people quitting over how hard the parachutes were. And then you know we almost had people quit at SpaceX over how hard the parachutes were. I mean they soldiered through, but, man, the parachutes are hard.”
Another risk will be landing in the ocean. American astronauts have not splashed down in the water since 1975 — the Space Shuttles landed on land, as do the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Behnken said he and Hurley expect to spend about an hour bobbing on the ocean surface before they are hoisted on the deck of a ship. SpaceX has been training extensively for the recovery mission, working to get the astronauts to safety as quickly as possible, but that will also be a key test.
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