NASA astronauts aim for Florida coast to end SpaceX flight

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In this image from video made available by NASA, astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken prepare for undocking from the International Space Station, aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The first astronauts launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company departed the International Space Station on Saturday night for the final and most important part of their test flight: returning to Earth with a rare splashdown.

NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken bid farewell to the three men left behind as their SpaceX Dragon capsule undocked and headed toward a Sunday afternoon descent by parachute into the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite Tropical Storm Isaias’ surge toward Florida’s Atlantic shore, NASA said the weather looked favorable off the coast of Pensacola on the extreme opposite side of the state.

It will be the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years. The last time was following the joint U.S.-Soviet mission in 1975 known as Apollo-Soyuz.

Space station commander Chris Cassidy rang the ship's bell as Dragon pulled away, 267 miles (430 kilometers) above Johannesburg, South Africa. Within a few minutes, all that could be seen of the capsule was a pair of flashing lights against the black void of space.

"It's been a great two months, and we appreciate all you've done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight,” Hurley radioed to the space station.

“Safe travels," Cassidy replied, “and have a successful landing."

The astronauts' homecoming will cap a mission that ended a prolonged launch drought in the U.S., which has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the end of the shuttle era.