Featured Image Source: NASA
SpaceX launched NASA astronauts for the first time on May 30th, the mission referred to as Demo-2, returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States. The agency had not launched astronauts from American soil since 2011. Demo-2, is a demonstration mission meant to test out SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft capabilities. NASA Astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley tested some of the spacecraft's vital functions to certify it as a safe vehicle to conduct future operational missions with a larger crew. A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from historic Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, propelling Crew Dragon into low Earth orbit. During their 19-hour voyage to the International Space Station (ISS), the astronaut duo tested the spacecraft’s manual function. – “It’s been a real honor to be a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States spaceship docked with the International Space Station,” Astronaut Hurley said as Dragon docked autonomously to the Space Station’s Harmony module on May 31st. “We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX, at Hawthorne McGregor and at Kennedy Space Center. Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible cannot go overstated.”
Behnken and Hurley joined ISS Commander Astronaut Chris Cassidy at the station as members of Expedition 63. The astronauts named the first SpaceX Dragon to carry humans - Endeavour. "We both had our first flights on Shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much to us to carry on that name," Hurley explained.
The agency had not put a specific completion date for the Demo-2 mission. Today, July 17, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced – “We're targeting an August 1 departure of SpaceX's Dragon Endeavour spacecraft from the Space Station to bring Astronaut Behnken and Hurley home after their historic Launch America mission. Splashdown is targeted for August 2. Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned.” NASA plans to undock the spacecraft from the station’s Harmony module at around 8:00 p.m. EDT. on August 1st, to initiate a return voyage.
NEWS: We're targeting an Aug. 1 departure of @SpaceX's Dragon Endeavour spacecraft from the @Space_Station to bring @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug home after their historic #LaunchAmerica mission. Splashdown is targeted for Aug. 2. Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned. pic.twitter.com/VOCV51gzLi— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) July 17, 2020
The astronauts' return date will also depend on weather conditions. When the veteran astronauts return from the orbiting laboratory, Dragon Endeavour will cross Earth’s fiery atmosphere with Behnken and Hurley aboard, to conduct a parachute-assisted landing at sea. Their splashdown is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. EDT. on August 2nd. SpaceX has two designated landing zones, located about 24 nautical miles off the East coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean, and a backup site in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola. Weather and ocean current conditions must be favorable to ensure the astronauts land safely, so, recovery teams can rescue them. It will be the first time SpaceX returns humans from space aboard Dragon. The company has previously launched and returned living organisms, including mice, that have been launched by NASA to conduct scientific experiments at the ISS Lab in microgravity.
The astronauts’ return will be special because they will bring back a United States flag that Astronaut Hurley left at ISS on the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011. The flag’s return will mark a successful mission completion and officially initiate a new era in American human spaceflight. “This American flag was launched on the very first Space Shuttle mission in 1981, and re-flown on the final Space Shuttle mission nine years ago,” Astronaut Behnken said on the fourth of July commemoration from the station, “Doug and I will bring ‘Old Glory’ home with us on our Endeavour Crew Dragon spacecraft. So, it can be flown yet again when Americans launch on the Orion spacecraft to place American boots on the moon.”
“Our flag is not only symbolic of our fervent love of our country, but represents the spirit of American drive and exploration, that will lead us once again, a new generation of explorers to venture back to the moon and beyond in the years to come,” ISS Commander Astronaut Cassidy added.
From the @Space_Station, @NASA_Astronauts commemorate the #FourthofJuly. With them is a U.S. flag that flew on the first and last space shuttle missions. @AstroBehnken & @Astro_Doug will bring it back to Earth aboard the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour: https://t.co/IygUtMeh2X pic.twitter.com/mcntYrUjqw— NASA (@NASA) July 4, 2020
The next crewed flight launched from American soil is expected to occur a month after Behnken and Hurley return from space, sometime in mid-September. The mission will be called ‘Crew-1’ it will be NASA’s first operational mission in which SpaceX will deploy four astronauts to the space station.
Last week, on July 8, Expedition 63 astronauts at ISS performed a ‘habitability test’ inside Dragon Endeavour as it is docked to the station. For 1-hour – “Four out of the five Expedition 63 crew members assessed comfort factors inside the docked SpaceX Crew Dragon...This is a demonstration of the Crew Dragon’s habitability ahead of the SpaceX Crew-1 mission planned for later this year,” NASA wrote in a press release. “Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken performed a series of tests to verify Crew Dragon’s features and functions while in orbit around Earth, including opening and closing the hatch, operating Dragon’s waste system, donning their spacesuits, and moving cargo back into the vehicle,” NASA representative said, “They were also joined by two more crew members to test Dragon’s sleeping configuration to assess the spacecraft, and determine what improvements can be made for future crews.”
“The Demo-2 mission is the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station,” the agency’s commentator added, “This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon, will enable NASA to continue important research and technology investigations taking place aboard the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration to the moon and Mars.”