Science

NASA Astronauts to Undock From Space Station: How to Watch

After an eventful stay aboard the International Space Station, four astronauts from the NASA Crew-2 mission are scheduled to head back to Earth on Monday.

Here’s what you need to know about their trip home.

When will the astronauts leave the space station?

On Monday, the crew members will don their spacesuits, buckle into a Crew Dragon capsule built by SpaceX and then undock from the space station a few hours later, at 2:05 p.m. Eastern time.

The return trip will last just over 8 hours, with the water landing of the capsule, which is nicknamed Endeavour, expected at roughly 10:33 p.m. Eastern time on Monday.

NASA will stream live coverage of the departure process on NASA TV and its YouTube channel starting on Monday at 11:45 a.m., just before the four astronauts close the hatch of their spacecraft. After a brief pause, the coverage will resume at 1:45 p.m. and last until the capsule’s splashdown.

Where will the astronauts land?

Shortly before undocking, NASA and SpaceX will choose one of seven different locations in the waters around the Florida peninsula for Crew Dragon’s splashdown zone, picking whichever area has the most favorable weather. Clear skies, calm seas and gentle winds are prime conditions for a space taxi splashdown.

What will the astronauts be traveling in?

Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped astronaut capsule that can seat up to seven people, but it has flown only as many as four people so far. It has more interior space than a minivan, but less than a studio apartment.

The capsule launches to space atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, detaches from the booster once in orbit and uses a set of tiny onboard thrusters to gradually nudge itself toward a meet-up with the International Space Station. The spacecraft approaches the space station autonomously and docks to one of its entry ports, where it stays until returning to Earth.

SpaceX developed the astronaut taxi with roughly $3 billion from a NASA program called Commercial Crew. The goal of the program was that private companies would own the spacecraft they build, with NASA being just one customer among many buying seats for astronauts.

The agency’s previous mode of transportation to the space station was the space shuttle. But the shuttle program was retired in 2011, requiring NASA to buy expensive seats for its astronauts on the Russian Soyuz rocket for nearly a decade.

Toilet problems on the trip home?

The toilet aboard the Crew Dragon capsule is going to remain offline for the duration of the trip. If the astronauts need to go, they’re going to have to hold it, or use astronaut-grade diapers built into their flight suits.

“Of course that’s suboptimal, but we are prepared to manage that in the time that we’re onboard Dragon on the way home,” Megan McArthur, the Crew-2 mission pilot, said during a news conference on Friday.

In September, SpaceX detected a leaky toilet on another SpaceX capsule, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX vice president who discussed the toilet problems during a news conference in October. The same problem — which did not cause any issues within the crew’s cabin itself — was detected in Endeavour, the capsule that Crew-2 is flying in.

Although the problem was judged to not pose any safety risks to the functioning of the spacecraft, the toilet leak on the Crew-2 capsule remains, which means astronauts heeding the call of nature in orbit must use the “undergarments” in their flight suits, Steve Stich, a program manager for Commercial Crew, told reporters on Oct. 31.

When will more astronauts launch to the space station?

The timing for the Crew-2 astronauts’ return has changed several times in the past week as NASA officials juggled a set of ever-changing factors. The crew was originally scheduled to undock last Wednesday or Thursday, a few days after the arrival of Crew-3, which is NASA and SpaceX’s next astronaut mission to the space station. That would have ensured a clean handoff between the two crews on the space station. But Crew-3 was delayed on Halloween because of bad weather.

Then a second schedule delay popped up: One of the four Crew-3 astronauts experienced a “minor medical issue,” NASA said in a blog post. When poor weather again interfered with a subsequent launch date, NASA decided to bring the Crew-2 astronauts home first, and send the Crew-3 astronauts to orbit on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

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