SpaceX launched its first crewed mission on May 30. The company made history as it returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States -it was the first time NASA astronauts launched from American soil in nearly a decade! The mission is referred to as Demo-2, it is a test demonstration meant to test out SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft capabilities. NASA Astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley tested out all of the spacecraft’s functions to certify it as a safe vehicle to conduct future operational missions. A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, propelling Crew Dragon into low Earth orbit on a 19-hour voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). “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. “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.”
NASA did not have specific duration the Demo-2 mission, how long the astronauts would stay at the ISS orbiting lab. According to NASA official and former astronaut Ken Bowersox, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could return to Earth in August. Bowersox discussed the Demo-2 mission’s schedule during a joint meeting of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. Bowersox stated:
“We didn’t prescribe the length of the Demo-2 mission until we got the crew on orbit and we could see the performance of the Dragon. The Dragon is doing very well, so we think it’s reasonable for the crew to stay up there a month or two. The actual details are still being worked out.”
The exact schedule of when Behnken and Hurley will return to Earth depends on several important factors, including how much work they have to conduct at the Space Station. Behnken is expected to perform at least two spacewalks in late June and early July. He will conduct the spacewalks outside ISS alongside the Space Station’s Commander NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy. They are tasked with replacing old batteries on a station’s solar panel. During their spacewalk, Astronaut Hurley will control the ISS’s robotic arm to assist.
Another factor is, the Crew Dragon spacecraft is certified to stay docked to the station for about 4 months, because the craft’s solar panel arrays could get degraded in the rough environment of low Earth orbit.
“It is very likely that by the end of July, we will have conducted some spacewalks with Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken, replaced some batteries on the ISS, and we’ll — about two months from now — start thinking about bringing Bob and Doug home,” Bowersox said last week. “We’d like to get them home sometime in August.”
The astronauts’ return date will also depend on weather conditions. As Dragon returns from space with Astronauts Behnken and Hurley aboard, it will cross Earth’s atmosphere to conduct a parachute-assisted landing in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. SpaceX has two designated landing zones, located about 24 nautical miles off the East coast of Florida, and a backup site in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola. Weather and ocean conditions must be favorable to ensure the astronauts land safely, so, recovery teams can rescue them upon return. “The Demo-2 vehicle has a little bit tighter restrictions on its landing wind requirements, so we’ll need to provide extra lead time for the weather possibilities, but I think it will all work out in August,” Bowersox said. “August is often a light wind month in the parts of the Gulf [of Mexico] and the east coast of Florida that we’re looking at landing, so I think we’ll be able to find a good opportunity in there.”
NASA officials said if the weather looks favorable next month, SpaceX might return the pair aboard Crew Dragon by the end of July, though there is no specific date scheduled for landing yet – “We don’t want to try to pin things down to too hard of a date or too hard of a time,” he added, “We want to pick the conditions that are right for this first return of the Crew Dragon with crew on-board.”
Besides performing repair tasks at the Space Station and conducting scientific experiments in micro-gravity, Behnken and Hurley are actively assessing the Dragon spacecraft’s performance and sending data to SpaceX mission control on Earth. SpaceX mission control engineers were planning to enable hibernation mode on Crew Dragon, as it is docked to the ISS’s module, to test out the system when they send a wake-up command. The test is to ensure the spacecraft can receive commands quickly in case of an emergency return to Earth. Mission ground control teams are also monitoring the status of Dragon’s solar arrays.