NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley made history in May when they rode the SpaceX Falcon 9 into space and docked the Dragon capsule at the International Space Station (ISS). The pair have been on the station all summer, but their tour of duty is coming to an end soon. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the Dragon will leave the ISS on August 1st and will land the following day.
The May SpaceX launch was the culmination of years of planning to bring crewed spaceflight back to US soil. Ever since the end of the Space Shuttle program, American astronauts have only been able to get to and from the station in Russian Soyuz capsules. That arrangement helped bridge the gap between the Shuttle and private vehicles, but the cost was extremely high.
SpaceX is one of two companies that got approval from NASA to build human-rated spacecraft, the other being long-time government contractor Boeing. Despite an early lead and more funding, Boeing suffered several software issues with its capsule during a late 2019 test. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has yet to perform a make-up mission, leaving SpaceX to cross the finish line first with the DM-2 mission.
The Crew Dragon capsule has been docked at the ISS these last six weeks, and getting it back to Earth with the crew will be the final major test. After this, SpaceX and NASA can begin regular operations to move crew to and from the ISS. Whenever Boeing catches up, that will further expand NASA’s access to the station.
In future missions, astronauts may return to Earth aboard a different vehicle than they arrived in. This is technically a demonstration mission, so Behnken and Hurley will be using the same capsule to come home. On August 1st, Behnken and Hurley will board the Dragon and undock from the ISS. Reentry into the atmosphere is the most dangerous part of spaceflight aside from launch, so NASA will be looking at how the Dragon’s head shield and parachute systems perform. After splashing down in the ocean, the crew will be picked up by a SpaceX recovery vessel. The crew should be safely back on Earth on August 2nd.
NEWS: We’re targeting an Aug. 1 departure of @SpaceX‘s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft from the @Space_Station to bring @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug home after their historic #LaunchAmerica mission. Splashdown is targeted for Aug. 2. Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned. pic.twitter.com/VOCV51gzLi
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) July 17, 2020
NASA has another crew Dragon flight scheduled for September, but it could delay or even cancel that flight if there are any problems during the last phase of DM-2.