CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, USA (AP) – Two NASA astronauts made final preparations for the most important phase of their test flight on a SpaceX spacecraft on Saturday: return to Earth with a dip in front of the Florida coast, something astronauts haven’t done in 45 years.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken participated in a farewell ceremony on Saturday at the International Space Station, several hours before their departure in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, scheduled for 7:43 p.m. (0043 GMT).

Despite approaching Hurricane Isaias, NASA said the weather seems favorable for Sunday afternoon’s dip in the Gulf of Mexico, near Panama City, Florida. It will be the first landing for astronauts since a joint U.S.-Soviet mission in 1975, known as the Apollo-Soyuz.

The astronauts’ homecoming will crown a two-month mission that ended a prolonged drought of space launches by the United States, which throughout that time relied on Russian rockets to transport astronauts to the space station since the end of the it was from the American ferries.

By launching Hurley and Behnken from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 30, SpaceX became the first private company to send people into our orbit. Now SpaceX is about to become the first company to bring people back from Earth orbit.

« The hardest part was throwing us, but the most important thing is getting us home, » said Behnken. A successful landing, he added, will make America’s launch capability « complete the circle. »

Space station commander Chris Cassidy, who will remain on board with two Russian cosmonauts until October, presented Hurley with the small American flag left by the last astronauts to arrive at the space station from US soil in July 2011. Hurley was the pilot of that final shuttle mission.

The little flag, which also traveled on the first shuttle flight in 1981, became an award for the private company that first launched it to astronauts.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company easily beat Boeing, which is not expected to launch its first team until next year and will land in the southwestern United States. The flag will have one more flight after this: to the Moon, thanks to NASA’s Artemis program in the coming years.

« We are a little sad to see them leave, » said Cassidy, « but very excited about what it means for our international space program to add this capacity » of commercial capsules for crew transport. The next SpaceX flight carrying astronauts is scheduled for the end of September.

Hurley and Behnken are also bringing back a bright blue and purple dinosaur named Tremor. Her young children chose the toy to accompany their parents on the historical mission.


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