Astronaut crew leaves ISS bound for Earth

A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts left the International Space Station bound for Earth on Monday after spending six busy months aboard the orbital outpost.

Since arriving on April 24, the crew of two Americans, a Frenchman and one Japanese astronaut conducted hundreds of experiments and helped upgrade the station’s solar panels.

They boarded their SpaceX Dragon dubbed “Endeavour” and undocked from the ISS at 2:05 pm US Eastern Time (1905 GMT), NASA announced.

Endeavour will now loop around the ISS for around an hour-and-a-half to take photographs, the first such mission since a Russian Soyuz spaceship performed a similar maneuver in 2018.

The Dragon, which is flying mostly autonomously, has a small circular window at the top of its forward hatch through which the astronauts can point their cameras.

Splashdown is scheduled for 10:33 pm (0333 GMT Tuesday) off the coast of Florida, marking the end of the “Crew-2” mission. NASA is running a livestream.

“Proud to have represented France once again in space! Next stop, the Moon?” tweeted Thomas Pesquet, representing the European Space Agency (ESA).

Their activities have included documenting the planet’s surface to record human-caused changes and natural events, growing Hatch chile peppers and studying worms to better understand human health changes in space.

Crew-2’s departure was delayed a day by high winds. 

Bad weather and what NASA called a “minor medical issue” have also pushed back the launch of the next set of astronauts, on the Crew-3 mission, which is now set to launch Wednesday.

Until then, the ISS will be inhabited by only three astronauts — two Russians and one American.

SpaceX began providing astronauts a taxi service to the ISS in 2020, ending nine years of US reliance on Russian rockets for the journey following the end of the Space Shuttle program.

– Broken toilet –

The crew will face a final challenge on their journey home — they will have to wear diapers after a problem was detected with the capsule’s waste management system, forcing it to remain offline.

They will have no access to a toilet from the time the hatch closes at 12:40 pm (1740 GMT) until after splashdown — around 10 hours.

“Of course that’s sub-optimal, but we’re prepared to manage,” NASA astronaut Megan McArthur said at a press conference.

“Space flight is full of lots of little challenges, this is just one more that we’ll encounter and take care of in our mission.”

A SpaceX all-tourist crew encountered a similar waste-related problem during a September flight, which triggered an alarm system. 

NASA later said a tube had come unglued, sending urine to the capsule’s fan system instead of a storage tank.

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