SpaceX set for historic Crew Dragon astronaut mission with splashdown from space

The trunk section is the cylindrical right half of Crew Dragon in this photo. (NASA)

SpaceX is close to becoming the first-ever private astronaut transportation service with the conclusion of the Crew Dragon Demonstration 2 mission (Demo 2) just hours away. Following a completely flawless autonomous undocking from the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule performed a series of autonomous burns setting it up for a picture-perfect return Sunday afternoon, August 2.

An illustration depicts the milestones of the Crew Dragon return trip following departure from the International Space Station. (SpaceX)

The process of ending Crew Dragon’s first astronaut mission – and final certification test flight – stretches about two days. On Saturday, August 1, the crew of the Demo 2 mission, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, participated in a farewell ceremony while aboard the International Space Station. The pair were joined by ISS Commander NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner to officially say goodbye ahead of their journey home.

The Demo-2 crew then spent the next few hours performing final check out tasks and packing the Crew Dragon capsule, which they designated as the “Dragonship Endeavour,” with the necessary cargo including a few special artifacts. Doug Hurley was sure to bring home a commemorative American flag that was delivered to the ISS by the crew of the final space shuttle mission STS-135 in 2011.

This flag symbolized the end of NASA’s space shuttle program and the beginning of the Commercial Crew era of astronaut transportation. The flag will be returned by Doug Hurley, a member of the final STS-135 crew, to later be flown on a future mission to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program. Bob Behnken was sure to bring home the zero-G indicator that traveled with the astronauts during their ascent trip to the ISS, a stuffed toy apatosaurs dinosaur named Tremor. The dinosaur was chosen by Behnken and Hurley’s young sons and will be returned to them.

Following the farewell ceremony, the Demo-2 crew boarded the Dragonship Endeavour and began undocking procedures. The astronauts, although able to intervene if necessary, notably had an observatory role during undocking as the Crew Dragon is designed to perform all docking and undocking procedures completely autonomously. The capsule unhooked from the ISS, backed up, and performed a series of burns to bring it up, over, and in front of the ISS completely autonomously, without incident.

An illustration depicts a series of burns Crew Dragon needs to perform to safely depart the ISS. (SpaceX)

Following the series of successful orientation burns, Behnken and Hurley were permitted to go to sleep aboard the capsule as Crew Dragon would spend the next nineteen hours orbiting the Earth ahead of its reentry, descent, and splashdown landing. As the crew slept, Crew Dragon autonomously performed a series of phasing burns to line the capsule up with the correct trajectory to attempt reentry just a few hours later.

Should everything proceed as planned, the Crew Dragon carrying the Demo-2 crew is expected to attempt deorbit, reentry, parachute deployment, and landing on the afternoon of Sunday, August 2nd. Behnken and Hurley are expected to return for a splashdown landing in the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida’s west coast near Pensacola, FL at 2:48 pm ET/11:48 am PT. A backup splashdown location has also been designated off the coast of Panama City, FL.

A successful landing will solidify the Demo-2 mission in the history books and make SpaceX the first private company to transport NASA astronauts to and from the ISS successfully. Following the conclusion of the Demo-2 mission, the first operational mission of Crew Dragon, Crew-1, is tasked to take place later this fall no earlier than September 2020.

You can join NASA and SpaceX for the reentry events live on their social media accounts. The event is also available via live webcast found below or on SpaceX’s website.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

Jamie Groh: Space Reporter.
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