On 2 August, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken returned to Earth after two months aboard the ISS. Their Crew Dragon capsule, built by SpaceX and named Endeavour, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.
It was the much-awaited conclusion of the Demo-2 mission, the first manned flight of the private company, SpaceX, for NASA. On 30 May, the Crew Dragon capsule with Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken aboard had taken off to reach the International Space Station the next day. After 64 days in orbit, this return confirmed the success of this certification mission for one of the two new American ships, from the American agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
THE FIRST AMERICAN SPLASHDOWN SINCE 1975
For two months, Americans Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken had taken part in ISS Expedition 63 with their compatriot, Christopher Cassidy and the Russians Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner (this trio had arrived before, on the Russian Soyuz MS-16 on 9 April 2020).
On 1 August, Hurley and Behnken went aboard their Crew Dragon ship which they had named Endeavour. The SpaceX capsule left the station at 19.35, American East Coast time, i.e. 01.35 in Universal time on 2 August (add two hours for mainland French time). The NASA video below summarises the departure of Endeavour.
Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken then began their last night’s sleep in orbit with their alarm set for 11.40 Universal Time, i.e. 07.40 East Coast time, the time zone for their return (we’ll use that time zone for the remainder of this article). Then, at 13.51, the Crew Dragon’s un-pressurised cargo hold (called the “Trunk”) was jettisoned, followed at 13.56 by leaving orbit with the capsule’s Draco engines kicking in. This decrease in speed led to re-entry into the atmosphere around 40 minutes later. In the Gulf of Mexico, the ship GO Navigator was awaiting Endeavour off Pensacola in Florida. The four main parachutes opened at 14.45 and splashdown took place at 14.48. Demo-2’s return completed the first sea-based return of a crew of American astronauts since the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975.
Shortly after splashdown, SpaceX control centre welcomed the astronauts back with “Thanks for flying SpaceX,” a nod to the phrase used at the end of an airline flight. It was also the first splashdown for an American manned flight since Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, 45 years ago!
The Crew Dragon capsule was recovered by SpaceX’s GO Navigator ship and the crew’s exit was delayed because of precautions due to the detection of nitrogen tetroxide, a component of the rocket fuel. Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken finally left Endeavour around 16.00.
THE CREW DRAGON WILL MOVE ON TO OPERATIONAL FLIGHTS
As the term Demo-2 suggests, this was a demonstration of Crew Dragon’s ability to meet NASA’s criteria for manned missions after the previous Demo-1 flight which was carried out completely automatically in 2019. The success of the 2 August splashdown should, once all the data has been analysed, allow SpaceX’s ship to move on to flights to the ISS in operational mode. Remember than according to the rationale of the Commercial Crew Program, the American agency entrusts round trips to private companies as part of a “key-turn” service. The companies Boeing and SpaceX were selected in 2014 and it was the latter, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, which has therefore first succeeded at all the stages of certification.
The NASA video below summarises the Demo-2 mission from take-off to splashdown.
The next flight of a Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled for the end of September. Called USCV-1, it will take Americans Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the ISS, along with Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi. The following Crew Dragon, for the flight USCV-2 in spring 2021, will be the capsule in which Thomas Pesquet will travel for his second mission, Alpha. The French astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA) is indeed in full training for heading off into orbit. He will be accompanied by the American Megan McArthur (wife of Robert Behnken), her compatriot Shane Kimbrough and the Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.