NASA on Friday said the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is now slated to undock from the space station at 8:35 p.m. Eastern time Saturday and splash down Sunday at 2:57 a.m.
NASA’s space shuttle had landings in the dark, including its final mission in 2011, which landed on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. But no capsule has splashed down at night since Apollo 8’s return in 1968 with astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, NASA said.
In a statement, NASA said that the spacecraft “is in great health on the space station, and teams now forecast ideal conditions for both splashdown and recovery during the weekend.”
In response to questions from The Washington Post, NASA said that the winds are expected to be about 4 knots with wave heights below one foot at the scheduled arrival time.
“Other return opportunities continued to show high winds well above the return criteria for the foreseeable future, making this an ideal time for crew recovery,” the space agency said. “The recovery team also has rehearsed for crew recovery at night, and has experience with nighttime landing operations.” That includes a recent cargo resupply mission that splashed down at night, NASA said.
The Crew-1 astronauts — Americans Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as Japan’s Soichi Noguchi — have already made history. It was the first full-duration mission under NASA’s “commercial crew” program in which NASA is partnering with two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to transport astronauts to and from the station.
The astronauts also set the record for the most days in space by a crew launched on a United States spacecraft, surpassing the milestone of 84 days that was set by the Skylab 4 crew in 1974.
Since then, they doubled the duration after staying onboard the International Space Station for six months.
Once the astronauts land in the water — either in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida or in the Gulf of Mexico — the spacecraft will be hoisted onto a recovery ship that would transport the crew to shore.
Last August, SpaceX flew home a pair of NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, in a test flight that paved the way for the Crew-1 mission, which launched to the space station in November.
Crew-1 was originally scheduled to return Wednesday at 11:36 a.m., but the landing was postponed because of expected high winds in the landing zone.
NASA has not said where the specific landing sites are. But during the test mission last year they were along the middle of the eastern coast of Florida, as well as along the panhandle on the gulf side. Last year, recreational boats descended on the capsule once it landed, creating a safety hazard.
This time NASA and SpaceX said they are “working with the U.S. Coast Guard to establish a 10-nautical-mile safety zone around the expected splashdown location to ensure safety for the public and for those involved in the recovery operations, as well as the crew aboard the returning spacecraft.”