SpaceX’s historic Crew Dragon spacecraft returned to dry land for reuse

SpaceX has safely returned historic Crew Dragon capsule C206 to dry land, setting the spacecraft up for a second launch as early as February 2021. (NASA - Bill Ingalls)

Five days after becoming the first private spacecraft to successfully launch and land astronauts, as well as the first crewed spacecraft to land in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX safely returned historic Demo-2 Crew Dragon to dry land.

After a brief night in a Floridan port on the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX recovery vessel GO Navigator pushed off, ultimately completing a several-day journey around the entirety of Florida before arriving at Port Canaveral on August 7th. One final lift onto dry land marked the true end of Crew Dragon capsule C206’s Demo-2 NASA astronaut launch debut, although astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were technically extracted from the spacecraft and airlifted to NASA’s Houston facilities on August 2nd.

While, prior to Demo-2’s May 30th launch, it appeared that post-astronaut extraction recovery operations would not be of significant interest to NASA, things changed dramatically just a few days later. On June 3rd, a modification to SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract with NASA revealed that the space agency had unexpectedly given the company permission to reuse Falcon 9 boosters – and Crew Dragon capsules, too – on astronaut launches planned as few as eight months in the future.

Five days after splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, Crew Dragon capsule C206 arrived in Port Canaveral, Florida. (Richard Angle)

Given just how unexpected NASA’s (quasi) announcement was, many assumed that a clause that SpaceX could begin reusing Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on Crew-2 (the second operational astronaut launch) meant that NASA would maybe consider the feat in 2021 or 2022. Instead, revealed in detail by both NASA and SpaceX officials over the course of several media events before, during, and after Crew Dragon’s first crewed reentry and splashdown, it quickly became clear that the plan was to reuse the Demo-2 Crew Dragon on Crew-2.

Crew Dragon was safed, secured, and brought aboard GO Navigator in a process that took several hours. (NASA – Bill Ingalls)

Scheduled as early as February 2021, Crew-2 is shorthand for SpaceX’s second operational astronaut launch to the International Space Station (ISS) and will follow directly in the footsteps of Crew-1, itself scheduled no earlier than (NET) late September. Given that NASA had apparently agreed to reuse the Demo-2 Crew Dragon before it had even returned to Earth (and thus before any inspections could be done), the space agency’s confidence in SpaceX must be at an all-time high.

Knowing NASA, though, that confidence is likely almost entirely based on fact and observations made over a decade of cooperation with SpaceX. With Crew Dragon capsule C206 safely in hand and back on dry land, SpaceX – alongside NASA – can begin an extensive inspection of the historic spacecraft. Building off of experience gained from Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 (C201) and In-Flight Abort (C205) test flights and recoveries, if capsule C206 look as good as SpaceX and NASA seem to think it will be, the inspection process could be a surprisingly short one.

The most important spacecraft in SpaceX’s history sails through the mouth of Port Canaveral aboard GO Navigator. (Richard Angle)

Once NASA officially qualifies Crew Dragon for operational astronaut launches, SpaceX teams will likely begin reassembling capsule C206 as soon as possible, completing any necessary repairs, replacements, or refurbishment along the way. If capsule C201’s processing is anything to go by, SpaceX may choose to perform some major integrated tests – possibly including a Super Draco abort thruster static fire – before giving the spacecraft the go-ahead to become the first reused crew capsule.

According to SpaceX engineer Kate Tice, the Crew Dragon refurbishment process will be quick relative to Cargo Dragon thanks to major design improvements, requiring six months or less between orbital flights. That means that future reuses should leave SpaceX and NASA plenty of schedule margin and Crew Dragon capsule C206 could potentially be ready to launch Crew-2 as early as late 2020.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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