A gumdrop-shaped fireball is set to plummet through the night skies this weekend.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, carrying four astronauts for NASA, is scheduled to plow through the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound, deploy four parachutes as it approaches the coast of Florida, and then glide to a gentle splashdown in the ocean at about 2:57 a.m. ET on Sunday.
The spaceship, named Resilience, flew to the International Space Station in November, carrying Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins of NASA, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The astronauts have been living and working in orbit for more than five months.
Their mission, called Crew-1, officially restored NASA’s ability to launch people into space on a US spacecraft for the first time since the Space Shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Six-month spaceflights have been routine for NASA astronauts launching on Russian Soyuz spaceships, but until now, the US had never flown such long-term missions on its own.
Crew-1 is also SpaceX’s first routine astronaut flight for NASA. The agency has already purchased five more Crew Dragon missions. The second one, Crew-2, launched four more astronauts on April 23 and reached the ISS the following morning.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi greeted the new arrivals, but the ISS is now crowded. So on Saturday evening, the Crew-1 team is expected to climb back aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience for the journey home.
SpaceX has flown humans back to Earth from the ISS once before — on a crewed test flight called Demo-2. In May, that mission rocketed NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. They stayed on the ISS for two months before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.
But during Behnken and Hurley’s return to Earth, a crowd of onlooker boats got dangerously close to the spaceship after it splashed down. To prevent that from happening again, SpaceX, NASA, and the Coast Guard plan to secure a 10-mile no-boat perimeter around the Crew-1 splashdown site.
The Crew-1 return trip was originally scheduled for Wednesday, and then for Saturday morning, but NASA delayed it twice after forecasts predicted high winds in the splashdown zones.
Watch live as Crew-1 returns to Earth
NASA plans to broadcast the nearly nine-hour journey — including the fiery plunge to Earth and the splashdown at the end — via the livestream below, starting at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.
The entire descent and landing process is automated, but Hurley advised the Crew-1 astronauts to make sure they’re “staying ahead of the capsule,” said Hopkins, who is the mission commander.
“Preparing for that landing is just going over our procedures and making sure, when we get into that sequence of events, that we’re ready to go, and we’re following right along with all of the automation as it takes us to, hopefully, a safe landing,” he told reporters in a call from the ISS on Monday.
Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi are expected to board…