This weekend, two NASA astronauts are preparing to return home to Earth inside a new passenger cabin, the Dragon crew. It will be the first time that the Dragon crew has transported passengers back to the planet, which will eventually demonstrate whether the vehicle can safely transport people into space and back.
Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be aboard the spaceship. The duo made history in late May, when they launched the International Space Station inside the crew kite, when they first marked a privately made human vehicle in orbit. The launch foreshadowed the return of a human flight to the United States. The last time people flew into orbit from the United States was in 2011, when the last flight was a space shuttle. For nine years, NASA relied on Russian rockets to bring astronauts to the ISS – but now the agency can use SpaceX vehicles instead.
While there were many fantasies at launch, getting the astronauts home is an equally critical part of this mission. “In terms of physical laws, we’re only halfway there,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX consultant who previously worked on the kite’s crew. The Verge, “All the energy you put in.” [during launch]”When you return home, you must take all that energy.” The crew dragon with Behnken and Hurley inside will have to disconnect from the station and plunge into the dense atmosphere of Earth. The heat shield should protect the crew from the intense heat generated during the descent, which can reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The crew kite eventually deploys a set of parachutes and slows down the vehicle so that it can spray relatively gently in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX brought back more spacecraft from space, but all of these vehicles were expensive versions of the Dragon crew that differed in shape and overall function. Crew Dragon is more asymmetrical than its predecessor thanks to the incorporation of an emergency abortion system. Company my brought the Dragon crew back to Earth from space before – but only once, during an untrained test flight of the vehicle in March 2019.
“Bringing a spaceship home is a really big deal,” said Benji Reed, director of mission management at SpaceX, during a press conference on the landing. “And it’s very important, as part of this sacred honor we have, to make sure we bring Bob and Doug home back to our families, 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 to develop private spacecraft to transport astronauts into low Earth orbit. Before these flights can start seriously, NASA’s SpaceX must prove that its Crew Dragon vehicles are safe. As part of a mission called Demo-1, the company had to make a missed test flight of the Dragon crew – send it to the station and then home again. Behnken and Hurley are the first part of SpaceX crewed test flight, a mission called Demo-2.
The Dragon crew has remained moored since arriving at the station on May 31. The astronauts and NASA have done a lot of analysis on the kite’s crew to see how it stays in space, and the vehicle appears to be in order. “The Dragon system is doing very well,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, during the conference. “The spaceship is very healthy.”
Behnken and Hurley are currently scheduled to leave the space station on Saturday, August 1, around 7:34 PM ET. The capsule then slowly moved away from the ISS over the next few hours. Then, on Sunday, August 2, the Dragon crew is scheduled to fire their propulsion units around 1:56 p.m. ET, taking the vehicle out of orbit. The capsule is expected to touch in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida about an hour later around 2:42 p.m. ET. There are seven different landing sites where the Dragon crew can potentially touch.
All this can change, because the weather is a big limiting factor. The Crew Dragon is the first man-carrying spaceship, as the Apollo missions are designed to land in water when they return to Earth, which means that good weather at the landing site is key. NASA does not want astronauts to land in choppy water after pulling more G forces on their way down to Earth. If things are too rough, the capsule could tip over, making it harder 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 also does not want to rain lightning in this area. The landing initially did not look good this weekend, as Hurricane Isaias was to observe the east coast of Florida on Saturday and Sunday. However, SpaceX has the option to land on the west coast of Florida if necessary, and NASA has said it will move forward with a schedule following a recent weather check.
NASA and SpaceX will continue to evaluate whether they need to move docking. Ultimately, however, it is possible to close the appeal at the last minute. “We literally have about an hour to disconnect, and if we thought at the last minute that the weather or something was wrong, the SpaceX team could control the vehicle and Bob or Doug could stop and stop the entire disconnect sequence.” Reed said.
Once a kite crew it does deviation from the station, which means that according to Reisman, the spaceship will most likely be sprayed. “Once you separate from the space station, you are obliged to return,” he says. “Because you consume consumables on board the vehicle – such as fuel, oxygen, etc.” SpaceX has flexibility when splashing occurs. According to Reed, most landing options occur about 15 or 17 hours after landing. But SpaceX can reduce the delay two days later if needed. The Dragon crew also has enough 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 dragon’s crew until two SpaceX rescue ships arrive. The first ship is designed to pull the crew out of the water, while the crew of more than 40 people on board will help the astronauts out of the capsule. The second ship will receive the parachutes of the Dragon crew, which will disconnect from the capsule after landing. If, for some reason, astronauts experience an emergency, there is a helicopter on board the main lifeboat, which allows the helicopter to quickly evacuate Behnken and Hurley from the spray site. But if it is not necessary, the ship will take everyone ashore.
A successful landing should pave the way for SpaceX to begin routine missions to the ISS. The new crew kite is already scheduled to fly in late September, taking a four-man crew to the space station for a longer mission. And then in the spring of 2021, the Dragon crew is scheduled for another flight with a four-member crew. In fact, this mission will use the same crew dragon next year as Behnken and Hurley return home. Immediately after the launch of this SpaceX crew kite, NASA approved the company’s reuse of capsules in future flights. And SpaceX says it won’t take long for you to turn them around. “We should be able to have the Dragon rebuilt and be ready to go in a few months – two months,” Reed said.
But before the Dragon crew can fly again, they must return home. All eyes are on the return of Behnken and Hurley, and anxiety is high as they both try to land safely. “Until they’re on a boat or even until they’re ashore and I see them get out of the Persian Gulf.” [jet] in Houston, waving to the crowd, I’m still nervous, “says Reisman.