Their journey home from the International Space Station will be the first in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

By Stefanie Waldek
July 29, 2020
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What goes up must come down — and so it goes for NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are currently 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, orbiting the planet aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The duo is set to make their return home this weekend, marking the first time astronauts will make the journey in a privately built spacecraft — in this case, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Here’s how you can watch the event this weekend.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASAs SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASAs Kennedy Space Center in Florida
Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

What’s the Demo-2 mission all about?

The Demo-2 mission is a collaboration between NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, marking the first test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with humans on board. Its crew and astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, both spaceflight veterans, successfully launched in the spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket on May 30 from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and docked with the ISS on May 31. The mission is particularly notable for two reasons: First, it’s the first time astronauts have launched into space on board a commercial vehicle, meaning one designed by a private company and not NASA. And second, it’s the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. If the mission is a success — it’ll only be deemed as such when the astronauts are safely back on Earth — it will open the doors for a new era of human space exploration, creating the opportunity for more astronauts to not only launch into space, but also get back to the moon and eventually head to Mars.

How can I watch the return?

After spending about two months on board the ISS with fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner from Russia, astronauts Behnken and Hurley will return to Earth this weekend to complete their mission. It’ll be a multiday event, and you can join along through official livestreams via NASA TV, which will be simultaneously broadcasted via NASA’s and SpaceX’s websites, YouTube channels, and social media profiles.

The broadcast starts at 9:10 a.m. EDT on Saturday, Aug. 1, for the official farewell ceremony on board the ISS. At 5:15 p.m. EDT, coverage will begin for the Crew Dragon’s undocking from the ISS, which will happen at 7:34 p.m. Then, astronauts Behnken and Hurley will spend the 19 hours or so journeying back to Earth, orbiting the planet to get in the right position to reenter the atmosphere. Their entire journey will be broadcasted live to the public.

Splashdown will take place in either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, depending on conditions, at 2:42 p.m. EDT on Sunday, Aug. 2. But you’ll want to tune in to the broadcast at least an hour or two before that to watch the dramatic reentry process: The capsule will be moving at 17,500 miles per hour when it slams into the atmosphere, and it’ll reach temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, there will be an approximately six-minute communications blackout during the most intense part of reentry, in which NASA’s Mission Control and Crew Dragon will not be able to contact each other. Finally, the capsule will be slowed down by massive parachutes before relatively gently landing in the sea. (For the record, the last water landing was in 1976, when a Russian Soyuz capsule landed on a lake, so this splashdown is a pretty big deal).

After splashdown, recovery teams will retrieve the astronauts and the capsule, performing all sorts of medical and safety checks along the way. At 5 p.m. EDT, NASA will hold a news conference about the mission.

So what’s next for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon?

If all goes well with Demo-2’s reentry, the mission will be deemed a success, and SpaceX will officially be able to start operations with NASA (remember, Demo-2 is technically just a test flight). The first operational mission for Crew Dragon will be Crew-1, which is tentatively scheduled for launch in late September. It’ll carry NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, as well as JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi from Japan, to the ISS.