The astronauts of the Inspiration4 mission, four nonprofessional astronauts who went to orbit in a SpaceX capsule, are expected to return to Earth on Saturday, at 7:06 p.m. Eastern time.
While some spacecraft land on the ground, Crew Dragon does water landings, akin to the method used by NASA astronauts to return to Earth during the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury eras. The splashdowns occur off the coast of Florida, either in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Atlantic Ocean — SpaceX has selected the Atlantic for this mission. Two NASA missions returning crews from the International Space Station have splashed down safely in the past year, one of them at night.
Because the Inspiration4 mission is considerably higher than earlier Crew Dragon missions, it will start dropping in altitude tonight, to about 225 miles from 360 miles, in order to get into better position for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
On Saturday, shortly before preparing to land, the vehicle will jettison what SpaceX calls the “trunk” section of the spacecraft — the cylindrical compartment below the gumdrop-shaped capsule. The trunk will burn up in the atmosphere.
Then the capsule will begin firing its thrusters to drop out of orbit. Once it is low enough in Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes will deploy to gently lower the capsule into the sea.