CAP CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – SpaceX will attempt the first American splashdown of returning astronauts in the dark this weekend since the Apollo 8 moon shot in 1968.
Elon Musk’s company is targeting the hours before dawn on Sunday to bring back three NASA astronauts and one from Japan, after dangerously high winds scuttled two earlier attempts.
The astronauts – only the second crew to fly on SpaceX – will leave the International Space Station on Saturday evening aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule that transported them last November. They will aim for a splashdown 6 and a half hours later, around 3 a.m. in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Florida.
SpaceX brought back a stationary cargo capsule with a dip in the dark in January. This adds to NASA’s confidence for a nighttime homecoming, said Rob Navias, a spokesperson for the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“SpaceX did a lot of dress rehearsals and spent a lot of time with nightly recoveries,” he said.
Navias said the timeslot provides the best weather conditions for the next few days.
The capsule carrying the three Apollo 8 astronauts – the first men to fly to the moon – splashed in the Pacific near Hawaii before dawn on December 27, 1968.
The Russians also had a crew splash in the dark, in 1976. The two-man capsule could not dock at the Soviet Union’s Salyut 5 space station as planned and had to make a hasty return, ending up in a partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan – in the middle of a snowstorm. It took hours for the recovery teams to save the cosmonauts.
Even with the early hour, the Coast Guard promises to have more patrols to keep tourists at a safe distance. One Sunday afternoon in August, boaters invaded the capsule that parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico with SpaceX’s first crew.
The departure of Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker from NASA and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi will leave seven aboard the space station. Their replacements – representing the United States, Japan and France – arrived last weekend in their own SpaceX capsule for a six-month mission. The other three crew members – an American and two Russians – were launched into a Russian capsule from Kazakhstan three weeks ago.
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