This weekend, two NASA astronauts are beginning to return back to Earth inside SpaceX’s new passenger capsule, the Crew Dragon. This will be the first time the Crew Dragon has carried passengers back to the surface of the planet, which ultimately shows whether the vehicle can transport people safely in space and back.
Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be aboard the spacecraft. The duo made history in late May when it launched the International Space Station inside the Crew Dragon, which marked the first time a privately made vehicle carried people to orbit. The launch announced the return of human space to the United States. The last time people flew into orbit from the United States was in 2011, with the last Shuttle Space flight. For nine years, NASA relied on Russian rockets to take astronauts to the ISS – but now the agency can use SpaceX vehicles instead.
While the launch has received a lot of fanfare, getting the astronauts home is just as critical a part of this mission. “From a physics laws standpoint, we’re only done in the middle,” Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX consultant who worked on the Dragon Crew, recounts The Verge. “All the energy you put in [during launch], you have to take every bit of that energy when you come home. “The Crew Dragon, with Behnken and Hurley inside, will have to be cut off from the station and propelled into the thick atmosphere of Earth. A heat shield should protect the crew from the intense heat created during descent, which can reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit Eventually, the Dragon Crew will benefit from a parachute suite, slowing the vehicle down so that it can drop down relatively slowly in -Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX has brought many spacecraft back from space before, but all of those vehicles were versions of the crew of the Dragon Crew, which differ in overall shape and function. The Crew Dragon is more asymmetrical than its predecessor, thanks to the inclusion of an emergency abortion system. The company has brought the Crew Dragon back to Earth from outer space – but only once, during the vehicle’s unpaid test flight in March 2019.
“Bring space homes, that’s a really big deal,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, during a press conference on the landing. “And it’s very important, as part of that sacred honor we have, to make sure we get Bob and Doug back home for their families, for their children and to make sure they’re safe.”
This landing is the latest major test for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at developing a private spacecraft to sail astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. But before these flights can begin relentlessly, SpaceX must show NASA that its Crew vehicles are safe. The company had to make an untransferred Flight of the Dragon Crew – send it to the station and then return home – as part of a mission called Demo-1. Behnken and Hurley are part of the first SpaceX crew test flight, vaccinated mission Demo-2.
The Crew Dragon has remained dead since arriving at the station on 31 May. Astronauts and NASA have done tons of analysis on the Crew Dragon to see how it is held in space, and the vehicle appears to be doing well. “The systems on the dragon are going very well,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said at the conference. “The spacecraft is very powerful.”
Right now, Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to be cut off from the space station for the 7.34 PM ET crash on Saturday, August 1st. The capsule then slowly departs from the ISS over the next few hours. Then on Sunday, August 2, the Crew Dragon is scheduled to fire its thrusters for the 1:56 PM ET crash, taking the vehicle out of orbit. The capsule is due to touch the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida about an hour later at around 2.42 PM ET. There are seven different landing sites where the Dragon Crew could potentially move down.
All of this is subject to change, as weather is a big limiting factor. The Crew Dragon is the first spacecraft to carry humans, as the Apollo missions, designed to land in the water when they return to Earth, which means good weather for the landing site it is crucial. NASA does not want astronauts to go down into water fast after pulling extra G forces on the way down to Earth. If things get too harsh, the capsule can skip, making it difficult for astronauts to get out.
So for this landing, NASA wants calm waters and winds below 10 miles per hour at the landing site. The mission team doesn’t want rain or lightning in the area either. Originally, things didn’t look good for a landing this weekend, as Hurricane Isaias was projected to follow the east coast of Florida on Saturday and Sunday. However, SpaceX has the option of landing on the west coast of Florida if needed, and NASA said it is moving ahead with the schedule after a recent weather check.
NASA and SpaceX will continue to assess whether they need to run the cut. But ultimately, cutting the plant can end right at the last minute. “Literally, we have a period of about an hour where we can lock up and if at the last minute we thought the weather or something wasn’t right, the SpaceX team could command the vehicle and Bob or Doug could stop and stop the a whole sequence of the undock, “Reed said.
Once the Crew Dragon ma according to the station stop, this means the spacecraft is likely to drop down, according to Reisman. “Once you’re separated from the space station, you’re committed to coming back,” he says. “Because you’re using on-board consumables – like propellant, oxygen, and others.” SpaceX has extra flexibility meta that spill occurs. Most landing opportunities occur about 15 or 17 hours after unloading, according to Reed. But SpaceX can delay the spread up to two days later if needed. The Crew Dragon also has resources on board – such as food, oxygen, and more – to last up to three days.
Once in the water, Behnken and Hurley will wait inside the Crew Dragon until the two SpaceX recovery boats arrive. The first ship is meant to pull the Crew Dragon out of the water, while a crew of more than 40 people on board helps the astronauts get out of the capsule. The second boat retrieves the Crew Dragon parachute, which will be detached from the capsule after landing. If for some reason the astronauts are experiencing some kind of emergency, there is a helipad aboard the main recovery boat, which allows a helicopter to quickly evacuate Behnken and Hurley from the spill site. But if that’s not necessary, the boat will take everyone to shore.
A successful landing should help pave the way for SpaceX to start doing routine missions for the ISS. A new Dragon Crew is already scheduled to fly in late September, carrying a crew of four to the space station for a longer mission. And then in the spring of 2021, the Crew Dragon is scheduled for another four-man flight. In fact, that mission next year will use the same Dragon Crew that Behnken and Hurley will bring home. Just after SpaceX launched this Crew Dragon, NASA approved the company to reuse the capsules on future flights. And SpaceX says it won’t take long to turn them around. “We have to be able to get the Dragon fixed and ready to move in a matter of a few months – two months,” Reed said.
But before the Crew Dragon can fly again, he must enter the house. All eyes are on the return of Behnken and Hurley, and anxiety is high as they both try to land safely. “As long as they’re on the boat or even until they’re on shore and I see them coming out of the Golfstream [jet] in Houston, woo the crowd, I’m still going to be nervous, ”says Reisman.