On the afternoon of August 2nd, history was made when the first NASA mission using a privately manufactured capsule was completed with a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico.
About the Crew Dragon
The Crew Dragon rocket, designed, created, and tested by SpaceX, launched on May 30th to enter Earth’s orbit in order to visit the International Space Station(ISS). Crew Dragon was built for NASA through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which tasked private corporations to create commercial vehicles to send astronauts to the space station. The mission was called Demon-2 or DM-2 and its purpose was to prove the capabilities of the privately manufactured rocket and the ability to return passengers home safely. Onboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
In the space station
The next day, the capsule successfully docked onto the ISS. On the ISS, both Behnken and Hurley participated in several science experiments and space walks. The two astronauts contributed over 100 hours to the space station’s investigations and research. Behnken conducted 4 spacewalks with Expedition 63 commander and NASA colleague Chriss Cassidy. In total, the two astronauts completed 64 days in orbit which is 1,024 orbits around Earth or 27,147,284 statute miles.
Vivid recalling of descent to Earth
After spending two months in space, Behnken and Hurley undocked from the space station on August 1st and drifted from the space station. The next day, the space capsule’s thrusters were activated, thrusting the capsule into Earth’s atmosphere. Following the capsule’s flaming descent past the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the capsule deployed several parachutes to slow the landing.
The astronauts described the process of the descent to Earth. “All the separation events — from the trunk separation through the parachute firings — were very much like getting hit in the back of a chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack.” He added, “And then you get some sort of motion associated with that usually, pretty light for the trunk separation. But with the parachutes, it was a significant jolt.”
Due to the capsule scorching as it gained speed in its descent, the windows of the capsule were also damaged so the astronauts were not able to see much of what the descent looked like from within the capsule. Hurley said, “The look out the windows, you could basically tell it was daylight but very little else. So we didn’t really see anything clearly out of the windows until SpaceX recovery crew got near with the fast boats, and then we can see a head or two out there.”
Atypical landing site
The Crew Dragon landing was the first time NASA astronauts had an ocean landing when returning from space since the Apollo program and it was also the first time a spacecraft landed in the Gulf of Mexico. NASA and SpaceX would have actually preferred the capsule to land near Cape Canaveral, Florida but Tropical Storm was in that area thus the Gulf of Mexico was the next best landing zone.
Despite the successful landing, landing from space into water is a relatively unpleasant experience due to the unnecessary nauseating motion of the waves. This is particularly difficult for astronauts because it is a strange transition for them, adjusting from space gravity to Earth gravity.
Future Crew Dragon-like missions
Now that the Crew Dragon has successfully landed, the two astronauts were immediately flown home to see their families.
As for the future of the Crew Dragon, NASA will spend the following weeks analyzing data from the mission to certify the Crew Dragon for more ISS trips. The capsule has returned to a SpaceX facility in Florida to conduct refurbishment for its next mission. Currently, the next trip the capsule will take will be in the spring of 2021. Among the next crew will be Behnken’s wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur. This will be the first time McArthur stays in the space station.