Crew Dragon splashes down to end successful test flight

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Updated 6:30 p.m. Eastern with post-splashdown press conference.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico Aug. 2, successfully completing a test flight and crossing the finish line of the decade-long commercial crew program.

The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour by its crew, splashed down about 70 kilometers south of Pensacola, Florida, at 2:48 p.m. Eastern to end the Demo-2 mission. Recovery boats were on the scene within minutes, and the spacecraft was on board the main recovery ship 30 minutes after splashdown. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were in good health after splashdown, according to NASA.

The splashdown came nearly an hour after the spacecraft jettisoned its trunk section and started a deorbit burn that lasted more than 11 minutes. Preparations for the reentry went smoothly with no major issues reported.

“What an amazing day. Today we really made history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference shortly after the splashdown.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, also speaking at the press conference, noted the that the reentry and splashdown went almost entirely problem-free. “I think probably the greatest surprise is that this mission was as smooth as it is,” she said. “I think that we’re minorly surprised, but obviously incredibly pleased, that this went as smoothly as it did.”

The return was not entirely without incident. Opening of the Crew Dragon hatch, once the spacecraft was on board the recovery ship, was delayed slightly because of elevated levels of nitrogen tetroxide, a propellant used by the spacecraft’s thrusters. A purge of that system caused those levels to decline to levels safe enough to allow the hatch to open about 45 minutes after coming on the ship.

Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said at the briefing that nitrogen tetroxide may be getting entrapped in the service section of the spacecraft during reentry. “I think we’ll go figure out a way to handle it better on the next flight,” he said. “We’ve had similar things with other vehicles, so I wouldn’t say this was a big deal at all.” Shotwell noted another factor was the lack of wind at the splashdown location that would have dispersed the vapors.

Another issue not directly related to Crew Dragon itself was that dozens of private boats congregated around the spacecraft after splashdown, some coming very close to the spacecraft. That raised concerns not just about the boats interfering with recovery operations but also exposing them to toxic chemicals like nitrogen tetroxide.

“That was not what we were anticipating,” Bridenstine said. The U.S. Coast Guard cleared the area around the landing site, but after splashdown “the boats just came in.”

“The lesson learned here is that we probably need more Coast Guard assets, maybe some more SpaceX and NASA assets as well,” Shotwell said. “This is a demonstration mission. This is the time you go learn about these things, and we’ll certainly be better prepared next time.”

The spacecraft, which arrived at the International Space Station May 31, a day after its launch from Florida, undocked from the station Aug. 1 at 7:35 p.m. Eastern. The spacecraft’s departure from the station went as planned, performing a series of departure burns of its thrusters to prepare for the reentry.

Crew Dragon returned to Earth the two astronauts along with about 150 kilograms of equipment, primarily science payloads being delivered to researchers. The astronauts are also returning an American flag that was brought to the station on the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011. That flag, which also flew on the first shuttle mission in 1981, was brought to the ISS to be returned by the next crewed American spacecraft to visit the station, which was the Demo-2 mission.

“This flag has spent some time up here, on the order of nine years since we dropped it off on STS-135,” said Hurley, who was part of the STS-135 crew, during a departure ceremony on the station Aug. 1. “Very proud to return this flag home.”

Commercial crew conclusion

The successful splashdown marked the conclusion of the final test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft prior to its certification by NASA for routine missions transporting astronauts to and from the station. SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract in 2014 for the final development and testing of the spacecraft, which included an uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019. The contract also includes up to six operational flights to the station.

With the successful end of the Demo-2 mission, those operational flights can begin, years later than originally expected when NASA started the commercial crew program in 2010 with a set of small awards to several companies. Funding shortfalls in the early years of the program, coupled with technical problems, pushed back the first flights of the spacecraft from 2015 to 2020.

Now that Demo-2 has returned safely, NASA now plans to rely on commercial vehicles for transporting astronauts to and from the station. The first operational mission, Crew-1, is scheduled for launch no earlier than late September, carrying three NASA astronauts and one from the Japanese space agency JAXA. That schedule is pending a review of the data from the Demo-2 mission and a certification review that Stich said will likely take place in late August or early September.

“It’s really establishing the business model for the future,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an appearance on NASA TV Aug. 2 a couple hours before splashdown. “This is the next era for spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer.”

Bridenstine said he wants to use that model of public private partnerships for other agency missions, including the Artemis program to return humans to the moon. NASA’s Human Landing System program is using that partnership approach to developing lunar landers, although the agency has chosen more conventional contracting approaches for other elements, like the Space Launch System and Orion.

“The commercial crew program has really just proven the business model for how we go forward, and we do more than we’ve even been able to do before,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine noted that NASA expects to be one customer of many for commercial crew vehicles like Crew Dragon. Shotwell said she was “very comfortable” using the vehicle for commercial missions “not too long from now.” The company has announced contracts with two companies, Axiom Space and Space Adventures, for flights of Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying private customers.

Boeing, the other company developing a commercial crew vehicle for NASA, is still working on its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. That vehicle flew an uncrewed test flight in December 2019 that was cut short by technical problems, including software issues and communications difficulties. Reviews by NASA and Boeing identified about 80 recommendations to address those problems.

Boeing hopes to perform a second uncrewed spaceflight, which the company will fund itself, no earlier than late this year. That will be followed by a crewed flight test, with two NASA astronauts and former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who now works for Boeing, some time in 2021.

Political reaction

The successful splashdown prompted comments from both the current president and his predecessor. “Great to have NASA Astronauts return to Earth after very successful two month mission. Thank you to all!” President Donald Trump tweeted. “Astronauts complete first splashdown in 45 years. Very exciting!”

The commercial crew program formally started under the administration of President Barack Obama in 2010, although planning for it goes back even further. “We launched the Commercial Crew program to strengthen our U.S. space program and it’s been great to see its success,” he tweeted after the splashdown. “This historic NASA-SpaceX mission is a symbol of what American ingenuity and inventiveness can achieve.”

Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in the 2020 election against Trump, congratulated NASA and SpaceX in a statement. “This is a victory for American innovation and persistence, and I am proud of the role President Obama and I had in fighting to ensure that commercial crew flights from American soil would become a reality,” he said.

Some members of Congress also weighed in. “Today’s milestone completes the Crew Demo-2 mission and provides critical data for final certification of Crew Dragon, the last step in the journey toward operational flights to and from the ISS on U.S. launch vehicles from American soil,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House space subcommittee, in a statement. “I want to commend NASA, SpaceX, and their partners for their collaboration and hard work in completing this important demonstration amidst the challenges of COVID-19.”

Bridenstine used the end of the post-splashdown briefing to make another pitch to Congress to fully fund the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $25.2 billion. The House passed a spending bill July 31 that gives the agency $22.6 billion, the same amount NASA received in 2020, with sharp cuts in the Human Landing System program’s budget.

“We’ve got a bright future, a big agenda,” he said. “I would implore our members of Congress — bipartisan, House and the Senate — to please fund the budget request for NASA. We have proven that, if you give us the resources, we can deliver.”