Featured Image Source: SpaceX / NASA broadcast
America has not launched NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since the shuttle fleet retired about ten years ago. SpaceX will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States on May 27th. A Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft, at around 4:37 p.m. EDT. from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken will embark on a voyage to the orbiting laboratory aboard Crew Dragon. The mission is referred to as –Demo-2, it will be a demonstration mission meant to fully human-rate the Dragon spacecraft. Upon successful mission completion, SpaceX will earn a certification to launch humans aboard on operational missions. The spacecraft that will conduct the Demo-2 mission is undergoing final preparations to take flight.
During a briefing on May 1st, NASA and SpaceX executives shared details about Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission. Flight plans were revealed in a series of presentation slides broadcasted on NASA TV.
Demo-2 will initiate as Falcon 9 ignites its nine Merlin 1D engines; Astronauts Hurley and Behnken will make history aboard Dragon as it lifts-off from historic Launch Pad 39A – the same complex used during the Apollo moon missions. The Falcon 9 rocket will ascend out of Earth’s atmosphere into orbit where it will conduct a second-stage separation (pictured below). This will separate the first-stage rocket booster from the second-stage which is attached to the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Source: SpaceX / NASA broadcast
Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the first-stage rocket booster performs a “boostback burn” –when the rocket flips itself to return to Earth and it performs a controlled landing. The rocket will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, use its grid fins for “aerodynamic guidance” to land on the Of Course I Still Love You autonomous drone ship at sea (pictured above).
This will all happen, simultaneously as Crew Dragon separates from the second-stage in space with astronauts aboard. Dragon will conduct "phasing burns" to head to the ISS laboratory (pictured above). It will be the first time a SpaceX spacecraft conducts this process happens with humans aboard. Dragon will autonomously head to the space station, the spacecraft also features an option to pilot manually in case of an emergency. Crew Dragon demonstrated superb ability to operate autonomously and dock to the station’s module during an uncrewed Demo-1 mission last year.
During the Demo-2 mission, Hurley and Behnken will embark on a voyage that could last up to a couple of hours to 48 hours to reach the International Space Station. The station travels very quickly, at about 17,500 miles per hour, that is 4.76 miles every second. ISS completes a full rotation of Earth approximately every 90 minutes, so, Crew Dragon’s arrival time depends on how far away the station is from as it reaches orbit.
Once Dragon reaches the station it will rendezvous, to dock autonomously. Once docked, the craft will pressurize its interior to open the hatch for Astronauts Hurley and Behnken to hop off into the ISS Lab.
According to NASA officials, their mission aboard the station may last anywhere between 30 days and 119 days. On May 1st, Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, stated the timeframe is selected because Crew Dragon’s solar panels could get degraded if docked over a longer period. “We would like to fly a mission that is as long as we need to for a test flight, but also support some of the space station program needs,” he said.
Upon mission completion, Astronauts Hurley and Behnken will return from space. As shown on the slide image above, Crew Dragon will initiate its return by undocking from the station’s module. Then, perform a “trunk jettison” to perform a deorbit burn. The trunk is the cargo compartment, it is released to expose the spacecraft's heat shield atmosphere entry. As Dragon enters Earth, it deploys a set of parachutes to conduct a controlled splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX recovery ships will navigate the ocean to pick-up the spacecraft with the brave astronauts aboard.