A SpaceX Dragon capsule undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) over the weekend, returning astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to Earth. The vessel descended into the atmosphere and parachuted down to the ocean without incident. Thus ended the first crewed mission with a commercial US spacecraft in years. With this success, big things are coming for both NASA and SpaceX in the next few years.
Hurley and Behnken rode the Dragon capsule into space on May 31 of this year, kicking off the Demo-2 mission. This was the first time NASA sent astronauts into space aboard a privately developed spacecraft after years of development under the Commercial Crew Program. This program was NASA’s solution to the retirement of the Space Shuttle almost a decade ago. The agency filled the gap between the Shuttle and Commercial Crew with seats on Russian Soyuz launches, but those seats were extremely expensive and had to be purchased well in advance. NASA was almost out of Soyuz seats, too, so the success of Demo-2 is all the more important.
The Dragon capsule remained docked at the ISS for almost 64 days, allowing Hurley and Behnken to spend the summer working on the station. The pair boarded the capsule and undocked from the ISS at 23:35 UTC on August 1st. The vessel splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2nd at 18:48 UTC, which was the first water landing for a crewed US mission in almost 50 years. The last splashdown was Apollo 17 in 1972.
"No matter where you are on planet Earth, this is a good thing."@SpaceX CEO @ElonMusk reflects on the success of the #LaunchAmerica mission and what it means for commercial space capability: pic.twitter.com/qYjBRd2GPO
— NASA (@NASA) August 3, 2020
After all these decades, NASA apparently forgot some of the logistical necessities of a water landing. Shortly after the capsule splashed down, private boats moved in to get a closer look. NASA had to ask the vessels to leave the area, fearing nitrogen tetroxide from the Dragon’s engines could be hazardous to those aboard. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency will have to do a better job warning people away in the future.
Astronauts usually spend longer than two months on the station, but Hurley and Behnken were there primarily to validate the Dragon and Falcon 9 launch platform. Demo-2 was the final test for SpaceX, so NASA can now contract the company for regular launch operations. Boeing is also working on a spacecraft for the Commercial Crew Program, but it fell behind SpaceX after several problems with its CST-100 Starliner. That spacecraft will have an uncrewed demo flight later this year, followed by its own crewed test flight similar to Demo-2.
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