Demo-2 to splashdown in Gulf; SpaceX, NASA eye operational Crew Dragon flights

NASA and SpaceX are ready for a Sunday, 2 August 2020 deorbit and splashdown of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour.  The return to Earth will bring an end to the historic first private-company spaceflight of humans to Earth orbit and the commencement of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico is expected at 2:48 pm EDT (18:48 UTC) off the southern coast of Alabama and southwest of Pensacola, Florida.

Weather at the recovery area is — as of publication — showing 1 mph winds and calm seas, perfect weather for Dragon.

A back-up site existed until roughly 08:48 EDT (12:48 EDT) at Panama City, Florida.  However, after that time, Dragon no longer had the ability to adjust its orbit to aligned with Panama City, committing the craft to Pensacola, Florida, for Sunday’s return attempt.

The splashdown will culminate the historic Demo-2 flight which launched humans into orbit on the first-ever privately owned and operated rocket and spacecraft from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 30 May 2020.

The launch marked the first time since the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis in 2011 that humans launched into orbit from the United States, and this historic splashdown will be the first landing of a spacecraft with humans on board in the Gulf of Mexico.

Moreso, it will mark the first end of mission water landing for a U.S. human space flight since Apollo-Soyuz Test Program in July 1975 and the first global human spaceflight water landing since Soyuz 23 accidentally came down in Lake Tengiz on 16 October 1976.

Crew Dragon Endeavour undocked from the Station right on time at 7:34 pm EDT (23:34 UTC) on Saturday, 1 August, which was preceded by a go/no go poll after ground teams assessed the readiness of the spacecraft, crew, and Station for DM-2’s departure.

Dragon performed nominally overnight and through all of its departure sequence.  A few minor things were noted — as expected for first-time missions with humans onboard.  None of the items noted would prevent the Crew-1 mission from launching in late-September on the second mission of Crew Dragon to carry astronauts to the Station.

If weather conditions had been marginal or exceeded the acceptance criteria, a joint recommendation by SpaceX and NASA could have been made to remain at the Station.

However, all weather was acceptable in both the primary and backup recovery zones in the Gulf of Mexico to permit Crew Dragon to depart the laboratory.

With Pensacola, Florida, now locked in as Sunday’s recovery site, Crew Dragon’s controllers in Hawthorne, California, with SpaceX and MIssion Control Houston with NASA will give a final “go” to reorient Crew Dragon for trunk separation at 1:51:09 pm EDT (17:51:09 UTC).

The 11 minute 22 second deorbit burn from the forward bulkhead thrusters will then begin at 1:56:45 pm EDT (17:56:45 UTC) and will reduce Dragon’s velocity by 75.042 m/s and place the craft on course for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico.

The trunk will remain in orbit for well over a year as it will have to decay naturally having been jettisoned prior to the deorbit burn.

The Demo-1 Crew Dragon reenters the atmosphere for splashdown in March 2019 as seen by a NASA long-range IR tracking aircraft. (Credit: NASA/SpaceX)

After the deorbit burn, Dragon’s protective nosecone — which covers the forward bulkhead thrusters, docking ring, and sensors crucial for autonomous approach and rendezvous — will be closed as the capsule prepares for its fiery atmospheric re-entry.

Dragon will reenter the atmosphere at an altitude of 121 km at 2:36:33 pm EDT (18:36:33 UTC).  A loss of signal and communication from the craft and with the crew is expected as temperatures built to 1,930° C (3,500° F) due to an envelope of ionized air around the spacecraft created by this extreme heat.

Communications are expected to be regained around 2:42:17 pm EDT (18:42:17 UTC).

Drogue chute deployment will come at 2:44:13 pm EDT (18:44:13 UTC) at roughly 5,486 meters (18,000 feet) in altitude to begin slowing the spacecraft from 563 kilometers per hour (300 miles per hour).

Four main parachutes will deploy at 2:45:00 EDT (18:45:00 UTC) at about 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) while the spacecraft is moving approximately 192 kilometers per hour (119 miles per hour).

Splashdown is expected at roughly 2:48:24 EDT (18:48:24 UTC).

Recovery forces will then descend on Crew Dragon Endeavour.  These operations will be assisted by over 40 trained NASA and SpaceX personnel made up of spacecraft engineers, water recovery experts, medical professionals, ship’s crew, NASA’s cargo experts, and others on board the company’s recovery ship, Go Navigator, already at the Pensacola splashdown site.

The Go Navigator vessel will hoist the Crew Dragon capsule onto the main deck, moving it to a stable location to open the hatch or medical professionals to conduct the initial checks and assist the astronauts out of the craft.

The Demo-1 Crew Dragon capsule being recovered after splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. (Credit: NASA)

Similar to the procedures of welcoming long-duration crews returning home on the Russian Soyuz in Kazakhstan, the astronauts will be assessed in a medical area on the recovery ship at first before they are returned to shore and flown back to Houston.

Final certification of Crew Dragon

Crew Dragon Endeavour will then be returned back to the SpaceX Dragon Lair in Florida for inspection and processing.  NASA and SpaceX teams will examine the data and performance of the spacecraft throughout the test flight and will complete the certification process, which will allow SpaceX to fly operational missions aboard the Crew Dragon for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to the International Space Station.

The certification process is expected to take about six weeks. 

After full certification, NASA and SpaceX will perform the standard pre-flight readiness reviews and checkouts on the new Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket that will launch NASA astronauts Micheal Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi for the first operational Commercial Crew Program spaceflight mission known as Crew-1. 

That crew will spend 6 months on the Station, bringing the total number of astronauts on the ISS to 7, doubling the amount of research taking place in the orbiting laboratory.  The launch is targeted for no earlier than late-September from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Crew-1 mission patch. (Credit: NASA/JAXA/Crew-1 astronauts)

Crew Dragon Endeavour itself, however, will be refurbished and used in SpaceX’s second operational crewed mission, Crew-2, along with the Falcon 9 booster used for the Crew-1 mission. 

NASA, ESA, and JAXA announce crewmembers for the Crew-2 mission

Crew Dragon’s next mission already has a crew, as announced in late-July 2020.  NASA, along with the European Space Agency (ESA) and JAXA have assigned crew members for the Crew-2, including NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur (who will serve as commander and pilot, respectively), JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

This will be Kimbrough’s third trip to space and his second long-duration stay at the Space Station.  He first launched aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour for a visit to the Station on STS-126 in 2008; he then launched on the Russian Soyuz for Expedition 49/50 in 2016, spending over 126 days in space and performing six spacewalks.

McArthur will make her second trip to space and first to the Station.  She launched on Shuttle Atlantis on STS-125, the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 2009, where she operated the shuttle’s robotic arm, known as Canadarm, capturing the telescope and moving crew members during the five spacewalks needed to repair and upgrade the iconic observatory.

McArthur is the last person to robotically touch Hubble, releasing the Shuttle’s robotic arm from the observatory at the end of its last servicing mission.

She is also the wife of Bob Behnken, returning to Earth today on Crew Dragon’s DM-2 mission.

She will be the first woman to pilot a human spaceflight mission since Pamela Melroy served as pilot of Shuttle Discovery on STS-92 in October 2000.

For Hoshide, Crew-2 will mark his third spaceflight.  He was a part of Shuttle Discovery’s crew for STS-124 in 2008 and a crew member for Expedition 32/33, launching onboard the Russian Soyuz in 2012.  He spent over 124 days on the Station.  He will also be the second Japanese astronaut to launch aboard a commercial U.S. crewed vehicle.  Soichi Noguchi will be the first, launching aboard Crew-1.

Thomas Pesquet will be the first ESA astronaut flying aboard the new generation of U.S. crewed spacecraft.  His second mission to the ISS will be called Alpha — named after Alpha Centauri, the closest stellar system to Earth.  This follows the French tradition to name human space missions after stars or constellations.  The Alpha Patch was designed by ESA’s graphic artists and features a rocket launch: the most dramatic moment of every space mission. 

Around the patch are 17 colored slots representing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  At the top, the ISS is stylized in the colors of the French flag, and ten stars in the background evoke the Centaurus constellation and the number of French citizens who have flown to space. 

Crew-2 is expected to launch in Spring 2021.  The Crew-2 astronauts will remain aboard the ISS for approximately six months as expedition crew members, along with three crewmates that will launch aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

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