Crew Dragon docked to ISS
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft (right) docked to the space station as seen during a recent spacewalk. The spacecraft will undock from the station and return to Earth in early August. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA confirmed July 17 that the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, with two astronauts on board, will return to Earth from the International Space Station in early August.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that the agency current plans to have the Crew Dragon spacecraft, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, undock from the ISS on Aug. 1, splashing down off the Florida coast Aug. 2.

Those date are tentative, he said, and dependent on weather conditions at the splashdown sites. “Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned,” he wrote.

NASA has identified several splashdown locations both in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. While the prime splashdown site is notionally the one off the coast from Cape Canaveral, allowing astronauts to quickly return to the Kennedy Space Center, NASA previously stated they will pick the site that best aligns with the spacecraft’s orbit and with weather conditions on the ground.

That date confirms earlier statements by agency officials that the Demo-2 mission would end in early August, although this is the first time that NASA has provided a specific date for the splashdown. Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a talk at the American Astronautical Society’s Glenn Memorial Symposium July 17, shortly before Bridenstine’s tweet, that NASA was planning an “early August” end for the mission.

At a June 24 briefing, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said the Crew Dragon would likely undock in early August. At that time, he said the spacecraft had been performing well since its May 30 launch. Controllers were powering on systems on the spacecraft weekly for health checks, while Behnken and Hurley, along with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, recently boarded the spacecraft to test how it accommodates four people.

NASA extended Demo-2, originally expected to last no more than a couple weeks, to provide more crew time on the ISS. That’s included a series of spacewalks by Behnken and Cassidy, most recently July 16, to replace batteries in the station’s power system. That battery replacement is now complete, but Behnken and Cassidy will perform one more spacewalk July 21 to perform other work outside the station.

An early August departure would allow NASA to proceed with the first operational commercial crew mission, Crew-1, as soon as mid-September. Stich said in June that there needs to be at least six weeks between the Demo-2 splashdown and Crew-1 launch to provide enough time to inspect the Demo-2 Crew Dragon and conduct a series of reviews.

Preparations for Crew-1 continue, with the Falcon 9 first stage that will launch the mission arriving in Florida July 14. That mission will transport NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins and Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the station for what NASA described as a “full duration” mission.

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...