SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship to bring NASA astronauts home this summer

Captured by Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner, Crew Dragon is set to return two NASA astronauts to Earth later this summer. (Ivan Vagner)

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched to the space station on May 30, for an indeterminate amount of time. Their stay on orbit depends upon a few different factors, including solar array degradation, the status of the next Crew Dragon, and landing zone weather. While Bob and Doug do not yet have a definitive return date, NASA officials have said they are looking at August as a return time frame.

The mission, known as Demo-2, is the first to fly humans from Florida since the end of the shuttle program in 2011. It’s also SpaceX’s first mission to carry astronauts. But it won’t be the last. The California-based aerospace company is gearing up for its next crewed mission. Known as Crew-1, this flight will see three NASA astronauts, and one Japanese astronaut soar to the space station inside another Crew Dragon capsule.

The two missions are interconnected. Demo-2 is the final test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule, and at the end of the mission, NASA is expected to certify the craft to regularly carry humans to and from the space station. For nearly a decade, NASA has been solely dependent upon Russia to carry its astronauts, but now, the agency will have more flexibility with flights.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft that will be used for the Crew-1 mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program undergoes processing inside the clean room at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station is targeted for later in 2020 with NASA Astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

Before Demo-2 launched, NASA officials estimated that the Bob and Doug could stay on station anywhere from one to four months. The agency wanted to see how the Dragon performed on orbit before specifying the length of time the crew would remain on orbit.

“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,” Ken Bowersox, acting administrator for NASA’s human spaceflight program said on Tuesday. “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.”

Bowersox explained that the mission is going well, and the spacecraft is holding up as expected. The Crew version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has been to the space station one other time. During its first test flight, called Demo-1. This mission launched in 2019, without people on board. The craft proved it could dock and undock itself with the space station, and even spent about a week attached to the orbital outpost.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Pad 39A on May 30, carrying Bob and Doug into space. Credit: R. Angle/Teslarati

Now, NASA and SpaceX are putting the craft through its paces and seeing how well it holds up over time against the harsh environment of outer space. Some of the craft’s most sensitive electronics, namely the solar panels, have a shelf life in space. That time period is limited to 120 days, so NASA wants the crew to come home before that time.

The next batch of astronauts are expected to launch in late August or early September, if all goes according to plan. But, in order for them to launch, Bob and Doug have to come home several weeks before the planned liftoff so that the Dragon can be evaluated and certified.

To that end, NASA is looking at bringing the Demo-2 crew home in late July or early August. This will allow them to help with station maintenance, as well perform a spacewalk or two. Since April, Chris Cassidy has been the sole NASA astronauts on board, as the space station has been operating on a skeleton crew. The addition of Bob and Doug allows the crew to do more routine maintenance, as well as some research experiments.

Bob Behnken will assist Chris Cassidy on two spacewalks. The duo will replace the space station’s external batteries as new ones were recently delivered on a Japanese cargo vehicle. Credit: Bob Behnken/NASA

Bob Behnken is expected to perform at least two spacewalks — one in late June, followed by one in early July. Behnken will join Chris Cassidy in replacing batteries on the space station’s exterior. The batteries were delivered on a recent cargo resupply  mission and will help power the space station.

While Behnken is suited up and working outside the station, Doug Hurley will operate the space station’s robotic arm, helping Behnken and Cassidy move about during their spacewalks.

The plans were brought up in a joint meeting on Tuesday of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

Crew Dragon will splashdown in the Atlantic ocean after undocking from the space station. NASA estimates that could happen sometime in August. Credit: SpaceX

“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. “We’d like to get them home some time in August.”

Bowersox is a former astronaut, who flew on five shuttle missions. He recently took over as acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight division after the previous administrator, Doug Loverro, suddenly resigned. That change in leadership took place just days before Hurley and Behnken took flight. Industry sources say Loverro’s departure had to do with him breaking agency rules during a competition to procure bids for NASA’s upcoming lunar lander program.

While the timing was suspect, the Demo-2 mission was unaffected and went off without a hitch.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship to bring NASA astronauts home this summer
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