Four space station astronauts wrap up 199-day mission

Two NASA astronauts and two crewmates from France and Japan strapped into their Crew Dragon spacecraft and undocked from the International Space Station on Monday, setting the stage for a fiery plunge to Earth and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico to close out a 199-day mission.

Crew-2 commander Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide bid their three station crewmates farewell, floated into the Crew Dragon Endeavour and closed the hatch around 12:12 p.m. EST.

After donning their futuristic SpaceX pressure suits, the crew undocked from the Harmony module’s space-facing port at 2:05 p.m. EST, kicking off an eight-and-a-half-hour return to Earth and a splashdown south of Pensacola, Florida, at 10:33 p.m. EST.

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Crew Dragon commander Shane Kimbrough, left, and co-pilot Megan McArthur, right, monitor cockpit displays as the SpaceX capsule backed away from the International Space Station a few minutes after undocking. French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, center, carried out a photo-survey of the outpost, taking pictures through a porthole in the spacecraft’s forward hatch. NASA

“Take care. Fly safe,” Kimbrough radioed astronaut Mark Vande Hei aboard the station.

“Get home safely. It’s been great being part of your team,” Vande Hei replied.

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The Crew Dragon Endeavous as seen by a camera aboard the International Space Station during a 90-minute photo-survey fly around. NASA

Before leaving the station behind, the Crew Dragon executed a fly-around of the laboratory, allowing the astronauts to carry out a photo survey much like space shuttle crews once did on their departure.

That will give engineers on the ground and up-do-date look at various external components that are difficult to inspect in limited TV views.

“While we’re going around it, we’ll try to take as many pictures as we can,” Pesquet said before departing. “It’s not going to be easy from the Dragon because it’s not designed for that. But we’ll try to get the best results for people on the ground to conduct their analysis.”

With the photo survey complete, the Crew Dragon was programmed to move away from the space station, leaving Expedition 66 commander Anton Shkaplerov, cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and Vande Hei behind aboard the outpost.

They’ll have the station to themselves until another Crew Dragon arrives Thursday, the day after Crew-3 astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

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The International Space Station as seen by a television camera aboard the Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX

They originally hoped to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on October 31, but the flight was delayed by bad weather and a minor medical issue with one of the astronauts.

In the end, NASA opted to bring Crew-2 home first, in part because their Crew Dragon was nearing 210 days in space, the certified on-orbit maximum for the spacecraft, and because forecasters predicted acceptable weather in the landing zone Monday.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet feeling,” Pesquet told reporters Friday. “We might never come back. And it’s really a magical place that flies in the sky, it’s almost impossible to get to and gives you superpowers of floating and seeing the Earth and doing good things for the people on Earth.

“So to me, that’s what dreams are made off. And I’m very thankful that people dreamt the ISS some time ago and then went ahead and worked hard to make it happen and to build it for the benefit of everyone.”

One item the crew will definitely miss is the space station’s restroom. Because of a leaky fitting, the astronauts were asked not to use the Crew Dragon’s rudimentary space toilet and instead will rely on absorbent underwear for any calls of nature in the eight hours between undocking and splashdown.

“We aren’t able to use the toilet on Dragon for the return trip, and of course that’s sub optimal,” McArthur said Friday, answering the inevitable question from a reporter. “Space flight is full of lots of little challenges, this is just one more that we’ll encounter and take care of in our mission.”

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The Crew-2 astronauts, fielding questions from reporters during an orbital news conference Friday. Left to right: European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, commander Shane Kimbrough and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. NASA

After moving a safe distance away from the space station, Kimbrough and his crewmates planned to rig the ship for re-entry, jettisoning its no-longer-needed trunk section and exposing the capsule’s protective heat shield to space.

Finally, starting at 9:41 p.m., the capsule’s braking rockets will fire for about 16 minutes, slowing the craft enough to drop the far side of its orbit into the atmosphere for a descent to the Gulf of Mexico where SpaceX recovery forces are standing by.

The astronauts plan to remain in the Crew Dragon capsule until it’s hauled aboard SpaceX’s “Go Navigator” recovery ship. After initial medical checks and calls home to family and friends, the crew will be flown by helicopter to Pensacola for a NASA flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The Crew-2 astronauts originally expected to be on board the space station when their replacements arrived, giving them a chance to bring the Crew-3 astronauts up to speed on lab operations in what NASA calls a “direct handover.”

But with the Crew-3 launch delayed to Wednesday, handover activities will be handled by Vande Hei, who was launched to the outpost April 9 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He and crewmate Pyotr Dubrov are working through a nearly year-long stay in space.

“A lot of that handover time that (was) scheduled with the next crew is just showing little things on living in space,” Kimbrough said. “Like eating and going to the bathroom and sleeping and those kind of little tidbits. Mark Vande Hei is certainly capable to do that and get that next crew up to speed.”

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