SpaceX faces potential tropical storm as it prepares to bring home NASA astronauts

Return home still planned for Sunday

In this image taken from NASA video on Monday, June 1, 2020, NASA astronauts Robert L. Behnken, left, and Chris Cassidy right, listen as commander Douglas Hurley speaks about retrieving the American flag left behind at the International Space Station nearly a decade ago. (NASA via AP) (Uncredited, NASA)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Potential 60 mph wind gusts won’t bode well for a SpaceX spacecraft splashdown planned for this Sunday if the current track of a potential tropical storm holds but NASA officials say the plan to return the astronauts this weekend is still on.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are set to return home from the International Space Station this weekend after NASA and SpaceX officials completed what’s known as a flight readiness review, or FRR, on Wednesday and found no issues.

The astronauts have been on the orbiting laboratory 200 miles above Earth since May 30, marking the first human spaceflight from Florida’s coast in nearly nine years and crowning SpaceX as the first private company to fly humans.

Before they can return home on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft teams must evaluate the weather conditions at primary and alternative splashdown sites and determine if the sites are “go” or “no-go” for splashdown and recovery. SpaceX and NASA teams will be looking at wind speed, wave height, rain, lightning and helicopter operational limits.

Currently, all seven landing options on Florida’s east and west coasts are in the cone of potential tropical cyclone nine. SpaceX is planning to land the Dragon spacecraft in the Atlantic Ocean.

The disturbance in the Caribbean is expected to strengthen into Tropical Storm Isaias later on Wednesday as it continues on a projected path toward Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm is packing 45 mph winds, with gusts of 60 mph.

Seven potential Crew Dragon landing sites. (image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

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The Flight Readiness Review was completed Wednesday by NASA and SpaceX teams with no issues, according to NASA officials.

“The NASA team and the SpaceX team remain ‘go’ for return,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said opening up the media briefing after the FRR.

There is still more time to change the return date for the astronauts.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said the teams are watching the weather very carefully and if undocking doesn’t happen Saturday they could try again Monday.

There are evaluations at 24 hours, 6 hours and 2 hours before Dragon undocks from the ISS during which NASA and SpaceX could call off the departure.

NASA and SpaceX will make the final decision Saturday after the astronauts are inside the capsule just before undocking from the space station.

If the return home moves ahead as planned, Hurley and Behnken will depart the ISS on Saturday at 7:34 p.m. and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean at 2:58 p.m. ET.

SpaceX director of crew mission management Benji Reed said the astronauts will be retrieved by the SpaceX recovery crew, he referred to as “the SpaceX Navy.”

Reed said three boats go out to recover the capsule and astronauts, -- the main recovery vehicle and two fast boats-- between the vessels about 44 team members are on board comprising of both SpaceX and NASA staff, including medical teams.

After they are safely collected, Hurley and Behnken will return to land in a helicopter where they will be reunited with their families as soon as that evening.

Should NASA and SpaceX “wave off” the splashdown attempt after the astronauts have left the ISS Dragon will remain in orbit for the next landing attempt up to 48 hours later.

NASA revealed Wednesday during the briefing that the same Dragon Endeavour spacecraft will fly another crew of four astronauts in spring 2021, one of whom includes NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, who happens to be Behnken’s wife.