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US astronauts prepare for SpaceX-NASA return home from ISS

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Washington (AFP)

The first US astronauts to reach the International Space Station on an American spacecraft in nearly a decade prepared Saturday for their return home, which is tentatively on schedule for the weekend despite the arrival of Hurricane Isaias off Florida.

"Now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase after we undock, hopefully a little bit later today," Doug Hurley, one of the two astronauts, said in a farewell ceremony aboard the ISS that was broadcast on NASA TV.

"The teams are working really hard, especially with the dynamics of the weather over the next few days around Florida," he said.

"And we appreciate those efforts because I know those decisions and that work isn't easy."

Hurley and Bob Behnken blasted off from Cape Canaveral on May 30 on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon, and are supposed to splash down off the coast of Florida on Sunday.

For now, undocking remains scheduled for approximately 7:34 pm (2334 GMT) Saturday, and splashdown at 2:42 pm (1842 GMT) on Sunday.

But NASA is following the progression of Isaias, a category one hurricane, which was heading for Florida on Saturday after pummeling the Bahamas with heavy rain.

A final decision was due about six hours prior to undocking.

"The hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part is bringing us home," Behnken said at the ceremony.

Addressing his son and Hurley's son, he held up a toy dinosaur that the children chose to send on the mission and said: "The Hipposaurus is headed home soon and he'll be with your dads."

Behnken later tweeted: "All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go."

Mission chief Chris Cassidy called it an "exciting day" and said he was sad to see the pair leave the ISS, hailing the importance of having a new means to transport astronauts.

The mission marked the first time a crewed spaceship had launched into orbit from American soil since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.

It was also the first time a private company has flown to the ISS carrying astronauts.

The US has paid SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing a total of about $7 billion for their "space taxi" contracts.

But Boeing's program has floundered badly after a failed test run late last year, which left SpaceX, a company founded only in 2002, as clear frontrunner.

For the past nine years, US astronauts traveled exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets, for a price of around $80 million per seat.

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