Behnken and Hurley
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley give thumbs-up from inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after the spacecraft was brought on board a recovery ship after splashdown Aug. 2. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — The NASA astronauts who flew on the SpaceX Demo-2 commercial crew vehicle said they were pleasantly surprised at how well the Crew Dragon spacecraft performed.

At an Aug. 4 press conference, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley praised SpaceX and NASA’s commercial crew program for their work developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft that they returned to Earth in two days earlier, completing a mission that lasted a little more than two months.

“I personally expected there to be more — certainly not issues with the vehicle, but some challenges or some things that were maybe not quite what we expected,” Hurley said, based on his experience flying on space shuttle missions. “The mission went just like the simulators. Honestly, from start to finish, all the way, there were no surprises.”

One example he gave was during reentry, where he expected the vehicle’s attitude control to diverge from plan as the spacecraft fell into the denser lower atmosphere shortly before parachute deployment. “I fully expected that to happen, and it did not,” he said. “The vehicle was rock solid.”

Behnken painted a vivid picture of the reentry as the capsule descended into the atmosphere. “Once we descended a little bit into the atmosphere, Dragon really came alive,” he said, firing thrusters to maintain the proper attitude during reentry.

“As we descended through the atmosphere, the thrusters were firing almost continuously,” he recalled. “It doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise.”

However, he said that he and Hurley were prepared for that, as SpaceX had provided audio from the reentry of the Demo-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft in March 2019. “When it performed as expected and we could check off those events, we were really comfortable coming through the atmosphere, even though it felt like we were in the inside of an animal.”

Original plans for the Demo-2 mission called for a short test flight, spending as little as a few days at the International Space Station. Instead, NASA extended the mission to two months so that Behnken and Hurley could help support station operations at a time when only three people are on board. Hurley said that the extended mission had an added benefit of more thoroughly testing the spacecraft.

“I certainly feel much better from the Crew-1 perspective and subsequent flights of having Dragon docked to station for two months,” he said, referring to the first operational Crew Dragon mission, which will fly four astronauts to the station no earlier than late September. “They should have a lot more confidence that the vehicle does fine in the quiescent mode, docked to station, and there wasn’t anything that wouldn’t have been uncovered had we been up there for just a few days.”

Behnken said there are things that could be improved with the spacecraft, but didn’t go into details. “There are some things that we’ll have some ideas about how we could make better, to make things a little bit more comfortable, or a little bit more efficient inside the vehicle,” he said.

Such feedback, he said, was routine during the shuttle program, even on the program’s final mission, STS-135, whose crew included Hurley. “I know Doug will tell you there are things that could have been improved or would have been improved if we flew a 136,” he said.

NASA and SpaceX will spend the next several weeks reviewing data from the mission and examining the spacecraft itself ahead of a certification review in late August or early September, which will allow Crew-1 and later missions to proceed. Hurley, though, said it would be a few more flights before the vehicle would be ready to fly non-professional astronauts.

“There are certainly things on Dragon that could be tested more,” such as the ability to dock at a different port on the station. “I think it’s going to take a few flights before we can consider this vehicle completely tested.”

But, he added, Crew Dragon is an “outstanding vehicle, and they should be excited to fly on board if they’re lucky enough to do it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...