Featured Image Source: ΔV Photos @DeltavPhotos via Twitter.
The United States reemerged as a space power with human spaceflight capabilities when SpaceX launched NASA Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in May. The mission, referred to as Demo-2, was the first time the agency launched astronauts from American soil since the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011. A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, igniting a new era in human spaceflight. After a two-month-long stay at the orbiting laboratory, the brave pair returned aboard the Crew Dragon they called ‘Endeavour.’
Dragon Endeavour undocked from the space station’s Harmony module on August 1st. Astronauts Behnken and Hurley conducted a 19-hour return voyage. On August 2nd, Dragon reentered Earth’s fiery atmosphere at a speed of around 17,500 miles per hour with the astronauts aboard. The spacecraft experienced high temperatures over 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, it deployed its sets of parachutes to slow down and conduct a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. It was the first splashdown of an American spacecraft carrying crew in 45 years. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared his excitement -"We have Splashdown! Welcome home Behnken and Hurley!" he said. It is the first time the company returns humans from space. NASA and SpaceX recovery teams arrived to the spacecraft aboard the ‘Go Navigator’ ship to pick up the astronauts and Dragon. The vessel features a medical room and a helicopter landing pad. A medical team helped the astronauts out of the capsule and transported them aboard a helicopter to Pensacola to board a plane for NASA’s Houston, Texas headquarters.
Tracking footage of Crew Dragon’s descent, parachute deployments and splashdown pic.twitter.com/pzbm1iXCC6— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 4, 2020
NASA astronauts @AstroBehnken & @Astro_Doug have emerged from the Crew Dragon spacecraft 👍🏼— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) August 2, 2020
They’ll now move to a medical area on the ship for medical checks. A helicopter will then take them to Pensacola Naval Air Station, where they’ll board a NASA plane to fly to Houston. pic.twitter.com/oO5xsF99RH
Hurley and Behnken described their experience when they returned aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. They said the craft came “alive”; Dragon roared and vibrated as it plunged through Earth’s atmosphere. “As we kind of descended through the atmosphere, I personally was surprised at just how quickly the events all transpired,” Behnken told reporters. “It seemed just like a couple minutes later after the (deorbit) burn was complete, we could look out the windows and see the clouds rushing by at a much accelerated rate.”
“Once we descended a little bit into the atmosphere, Dragon really came alive,” he added. “It started to fire thrusters and keep us pointed in the appropriate direction. The atmosphere starts to make noise. You can hear that rumble outside the vehicle, and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel that little bit of shimmy in your body. And our bodies were much better attuned to the environment, so we could feel those small rolls, pitches, and yaws. All those little motions were things we could pick up on inside the vehicle.”
– “I did record some audio of it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise,” Behnken stated during a press conference following the splashdown. “It just continues to gain magnitude as you descend down through the atmosphere.”
“All the separation events — from the trunk separation through the parachute firings — were very much like getting hit in the back of a chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack,” Behnken shared. “And then you get some sort of a motion associated with that usually, pretty light for the trunk separation. But with the parachutes, it was a pretty significant jolt.”
“[Atmospheric] reentry is a pretty demanding environment as you know with the different scorches on the vehicle, and the windows were not spared any of that,” Hurley said.
After a five-day voyage Go Navigator arrived to Port Canaveral in Florida at around 5:30 p.m. EDT. on Friday, carrying the historic Dragon Endeavour. The spacecraft will be offloaded and expected to be transported to SpaceX's Cape Canaveral facilities, where engineers will analyze the vehicle and assess its perfomance. Florida residents photographed the Go Navigator vessel arrival to the port. Crew Dragon is surrounded with scorch marks from atmospheric reentry, pictured below
Here is the capsule which brought @Astro_Doug and @AstroBehnken to the International Space Station! Due to the scorching heat of atmospheric reentry, the surface of Crew Dragon Endeavour now resembles that of a toasted marshmallow.#SpaceX #CrewDragon #DM2 pic.twitter.com/Cdaikrb4H8— ΔV Photos 🚀 (@DeltavPhotos) August 8, 2020
Astronaut Hurley told reporters Dragon performed better than expected. “I personally expected there to be certainly — not issues with the vehicle — but some challenges, some things that were maybe not quite what we expected,” he stated. “I mean, even on our shuttle flights we had things that happened... something that you certainly wouldn’t have expected in a real flight."
“My credit once again is to the folks at SpaceX, the production folks, the people that put Endeavour together, and certainly our training folks,” Hurley added. “The mission went just like the simulators. Honestly, from start to finish, all the way, there were really no surprises.”
SpaceX is actively preparing another Crew Dragon spacecraft that is scheduled to conduct NASA’s first operational mission. The upcoming Crew-1 mission will launch four astronauts to the International Space Station in mid-to-late September.