NASA passed a major milestone on Friday, March 8, 2019 in its goal to restore America’s human spaceflight capability when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returned to Earth after a five-day mission docked to the International Space Station.
About seven hours after departing the space station, Crew Dragon splashed down at 8:45 a.m. EST approximately 230 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX retrieved the spacecraft from the Atlantic Ocean and transported it back to port on the company’s recovery ship.
“Today’s successful re-entry and recovery of the Crew Dragon capsule after its first mission to the International Space Station marked another important milestone in the future of human spaceflight,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I want to once again congratulate the NASA and SpaceX teams on an incredible week. Our Commercial Crew Program is one step closer to launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. I am proud of the great work that has been done to get us to this point.”
Known as Demo-1, the uncrewed flight test was designed to demonstrate the end-to-end capabilities of the new crew capable system developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The mission began March 2, when the Crew Dragon launched on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and racked up a number of “firsts” in just seven days.
-First commercially-built and operated American crew spacecraft and rocket to launch from American soil on a mission to the space station.
-First commercially-built and operated American crew spacecraft to dock with the space station.
-First autonomous docking of a U.S. spacecraft to the International Space Station.
-First use of the international docking standard in the station and Crew Dragon’s adapters.
NASA and SpaceX teams gathered in the early morning hours at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to follow the spacecraft’s return journey and ocean splashdown.
“We were all very excited to see re-entry, parachute and drogue deploy, main deploy, splashdown—everything happened just perfectly. It was right on time, the way that we expected it to be. It was beautiful,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX.
A critical step in validating the performance of SpaceX’s systems, Demo-1 brings the nation a significant step closer to the return of human launches to the space station from U.S soil since 2011, when NASA flew its last space shuttle mission. However, NASA and SpaceX still have work to do to validate the spacecraft’s performance and prepare it to fly astronauts.
“If you just think about the enormity of this flight and all of the prep that went into it—getting the pad refurbished, getting the flight control room set up, getting the vehicle built, getting the Falcon 9 ready, all of the analysis and mission support that went into it—it’s just been a tremendous job. Our NASA and SpaceX teams worked seamlessly not only in the lead-up to the flight but in how we managed the flight,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
After SpaceX processes data from this mission, teams will begin refurbishing Crew Dragon for its next mission, an in-flight abort test targeted to take place this summer. Demo-2, the first crewed test flight, will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on the spacecraft’s final flight to certify Crew Dragon for routine operational missions.
“For the first time we’ve gotten to see an end-to-end test, and so now we’ve brought together the people, the hardware and all the processes and procedures, and we’ve gotten to see how they all work together, and that’s very important as we move toward putting people onboard,” said NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, who will crew SpaceX’s first operational mission to the space station following Demo-2. “I’m personally very anxious to hear how Ripley is feeling after they pull her out of the capsule and get her onto the recovery vehicle.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off at 2:49 a.m. EST March 2, 2019, on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board was an anthropomorphic test device named Ripley, outfitted with sensors to provide data about potential effects on humans traveling in Crew Dragon for critical phases like ascent, entry, and landing. The capsule also carried more than 400 pounds of crew supplies and equipment to the space station. For operational NASA missions, Crew Dragon will launch four crew members and carry more than 220 pounds of cargo, enabling more astronauts to crew the space station at one time. This expanded crew capacity will increase the time dedicated to performing research in the unique microgravity environment and result in returning more science back to Earth.
About 58 seconds after liftoff, the rocket reached peak aerodynamic pressure, known as Max Q. Main engine cutoff (MECO) followed at approximately two minutes, 35 seconds into the flight, and then the first stage separated from the second stage. The single Merlin vacuum engine on the second stage ignited about two minutes, 42 seconds after launch. Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage successfully landed on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You.”
While approaching the space station, Crew Dragon carried out a series of phasing maneuvers. It demonstrated its automated control and maneuvering capabilities by arriving in place about 492 feet (150 meters) away from the orbital laboratory then reversing course and backing away from the station to 590 feet (180 meters) before the final docking sequence initiated from approximately 65 feet (20 meters) away.
On March 3, after making 18 orbits of Earth, Crew Dragon autonomously docked to the station’s Harmony module forward port using the station’s new international docking adapter for the first time. Previously, cargo Dragon spacecraft were attached to the station after capture by a robotic arm. Astronauts installed the new adaptor during a spacewalk in August 2016, following its delivery to the station in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on its ninth commercial resupply services mission.
Demo-1 marks the first autonomous docking of any U.S. spacecraft to the space station and the first time a commercially built and operated spacecraft designed for crew has attached to the orbital laboratory.
The Expedition 58 crew members aboard the space station who welcomed Crew Dragon on March 3 were NASA astronaut Anne McClain, the Canadian Space Agency’s David Saint-Jacques, and Russian cosmonaut and Expedition 58 commander Oleg Kononenko. The crew opened the hatch between the spacecraft less than three hours after docking.
While docked, teams verified the spacecraft’s ability to send and receive both power and data from the space station. Flight controllers also conducted a survey of Dragon’s exterior using the station’s Candarm2 robotic arm, looking for any impacts from micrometeoroids or orbital debris and performing a close inspection of the solar cells wrapped around Dragon’s trunk. The crew focused on transferring cargo to and from the vehicle and took images of the capsule’s windows that will be compared to photos taken prior to launch and after splashdown. Loaded with critical research samples to return to Earth, Crew Dragon undocked from the station on March 8 at 2:32 a.m. EST after being attached for five days. For future operational missions, the Crew Dragon is designed to stay docked to station for up to 210 days.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with Boeing and SpaceX to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit. Both companies are targeting to have flight tests with NASA astronauts in 2019, which will restore the nation’s human launch capability to and from the station. The upcoming crewed flights will be the first time in history NASA has sent astronauts to space on systems owned, built, tested and operated by private companies.