This weekend, two NASA astronauts are scheduled to return home to Earth inside SpaceX’s new passenger capsule, the Dragon of the Crew. It will be the first time the Crew Dragon has carried passengers to the surface of the planet, finally demonstrating whether the vehicle can safely transport people into space and back.
Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be aboard the spacecraft. The duo made history in late May, when they launched into the International Space Station inside the crew’s Dragon, marking for the first time a privately manufactured vehicle transporting people to orbit. The launch announced the return of human spaceflight to the United States. The last time people flew in orbit from the United States was in 2011, with the last flight of the 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 the launch received a lot of fanfare, getting the astronauts home is an equally critical part of this mission. “From the standpoint of the laws of physics, we’re only halfway there,” explains Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX consultant who worked on the crew’s Dragon. The Virgin. “All the energy you bring [during launch], you have to take advantage of all this energy when you return home ”. The Dragon of the crew, with Behnken and Hurley inside, will have to get rid of the station and dive into the thick atmosphere of Earth. A heat shield should protect the crew from the intense heat created during the descent, which can reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, the Crew Dragon will deploy a set of parachutes, slowing the vehicle down so that it can splash relative to the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX has re-generated several spacecraft before space, but all of these vehicles were cargo versions of the Dragon of the crew, which have a different shape and overall 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 to Earth from space before, but only once, during an untested flight of the March 2019 vehicle.
“Bringing a spaceship, that’s a big deal,” Benji Reed, director of SpaceX’s crew mission management, said during a press conference about the landing. “And it’s very important, as part of the sacred honor we have, to make sure we bring Bob and Doug home to their families, their children, and to make sure they’re safe.”
This landing is SpaceX’s latest major test as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at developing private spacecraft to transship astronauts from low Earth orbit or from Earth. But before these flights can be launched largely, SpaceX must prove to NASA that its Crew Dragon vehicles are safe. The company had to perform an unrejected test flight of the crew’s Dragon – send it to the station and return home – as part of a mission called Demo-1. Behnken and Hurley are part of the first SpaceX manned test flight, a mission called Demo-2.
The crew’s Dragon has been docked since arriving at the station on May 31st. Astronauts and NASA have done so much analysis on the crew’s Dragon to see how it stays in space, and it looks like the vehicle is doing well. “The systems in Dragon are working really well,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Cream Program during the conference, said. “The spacecraft is very healthy.”
Right now, Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to leave the space station around 7:34 PM ET on Saturday, August 1st. The capsule will then slowly distance itself from the ISS for the next few hours. Then on Sunday, August 2, the Dragon of the Crew is scheduled to fire its thrusters around 1:56 p.m. ET, pulling the vehicle out of orbit. The capsule is expected to touch the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida about an hour later at 2:42 p.m. ET. There are seven different landing sites where the Dragon of the crew can affect the potential.
All of this can change, as the weather is a big limiting factor. The Crew Dragon is the first spacecraft to carry humans, as the Apollo missions, designed to land in water when it returns to Earth, means good weather at the landing site is key. NASA does not want astronauts to land in the spicy water after throwing additional G forces on the way to Earth. If things are too rough, the capsule may tilt, 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 also does not want rain or lightning in the area. At first, the weekend didn’t look good for a landing, as Hurricane Isaiah was projected on Saturday and Sunday to track the east coast of Florida. Still, SpaceX has the option of landing on the west coast of Florida if necessary, and NASA said it is moving the calendar forward after a recent weather review.
NASA and SpaceX will continue to assess whether they should move the unlock. But ultimately, you can turn off deployment directly at the last minute. “Literally, we have a period of about an hour where we can dig 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 whole download sequence. ”Reed said.
Once the Dragon of the crew it does according to Reisman, the spacecraft is likely to disappear, according to Reisman. “Once you separate from the space station, you’re committed to coming back,” he says. “Because you use consumables on board the vehicle, such as propellant, oxygen, etc.” SpaceX has flexibility above When a splash occurs. According to Reed, most landing opportunities occur about 15 or 17 hours after discharge. But SpaceX can delay the split up to two days later, if necessary. The Crew Dragon 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 Crew Dragon until the two SpaceX recovery ships arrive. The first ship is designed to get the Dragon out of the water crew, while a crew of more than 40 people on board will help the astronauts get out of the capsule. A second ship will retrieve the crew’s Dragon parachute, which will be detached from the capsule after landing. If for some reason the astronauts are experiencing some sort of emergency, there is a helicopter aboard the main recovery ship, which allows a helicopter to evacuate Behnken and Hurley quickly from the site of the explosion. But if not necessary, the boat will take everyone to shore.
A successful landing should help pave the way for SpaceX to begin routine missions to the ISS. A new crew dragon is already scheduled to fly in late September, bringing a crew of four to the space station for a longer mission. And then in the spring of 2021, the Dragon of the Crew is scheduled for another flight with a crew of four. In fact, this mission will be used next year by the same Dragon Crew that Behnken and Hurley will return home. Just after SpaceX launched this Dragon Crew, NASA approved the company to reuse the capsules on future flights. And SpaceX says it won’t take long to turn them around. “We should be able to restore the Dragon and it was ready to start in just a couple of months, two months,” Reed said.
But before Crew Dragon can fly again, he must return home. All eyes are on the return of Behnken and Hurley, and the anxiety is high as they both attempt a safe landing. “Until they’re on the boat or even until they’re on shore and I see them coming out of the Gulfstream [jet] in Houston, waving to the crowd, I’m still nervous, ”Reisman says.