Crew Dragon Splashes Down into the Record Books
Matthew Greenwood posted on August 07, 2020 |
SpaceX safely delivers astronauts to the ISS and back in its first ever crewed spaceflight.
(Image courtesy of NASA.)
(Image courtesy of NASA.)
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico, ending a triumphant flight for astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken. It was the first time an American spacecraft performed a splashdown since 1975—still the Apollo era.

Crew Dragon splashes down. (Video courtesy of NASA.) 

The Crew Dragon, nicknamed Endeavour after the Space Shuttle both astronauts flew on, began its journey back home by detaching from the International Space Station (ISS) and performing a final orbit. After a “go” order from SpaceX flight engineers, Endeavour jettisoned its trunk—the section of the spacecraft that contained power, thermal control and avionics system components no longer needed.

Endeavour then performed a 12-minute “de-orbit burn” that shot the craft into the Earth’s atmosphere. This was the point of no return. Once the spacecraft started the burn, it couldn’t turn back from re-entry.

The Crew Dragon’s heat shield had to withstand temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as the craft burned through the atmosphere. The heat also caused ground control to lose communications with the astronauts inside for about six minutes, which had been expected.

After emerging from the fireball, the spacecraft faced its next big test: deploying its parachutes. The Endeavour triggered drogue parachutes to slow its momentum from around 350 mph to about 119 mph. It then deployed four larger chutes for final descent.

The chutes proved to be as tricky for SpaceX as they had been for the Apollo program. SpaceX’s design failed during early testing, forcing the company to redesign the parachutes. It made them what SpaceX founder Elon Musk now claims are “the best parachutes ever.”

(Image courtesy of NASA.)
(Image courtesy of Space Flight Now.)

Upon splashdown, the spacecraft was retrieved from the water by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery ship, which first dispatched speedboats to recover the parachutes and checked Endeavour for leaking fluids, propellants or vapors. Once the check was completed, Go Navigator hoisted the spacecraft aboard.

(Image courtesy of Space Flight Now.)
(Image courtesy of Space Flight Now.)

The retrieval team briefly delayed opening the hatch due to a buildup of dangerous hypergolic fumes around the capsule, which can ignite when they come into contact with each other. Technicians aerated the service compartments of the spacecraft for several minutes to disperse the fumes.

Finally, after an 18-hour descent, the hatch opened, and the astronauts were greeted by technicians in masks due to COVID-19.

(Image courtesy of Space X.)
(Image courtesy of Space X.)

The successful completion of SpaceX’s first crewed spaceflight will likely open the door for many future missions for the Crew Dragon. In fact, the next mission is scheduled to lift off as early as late September.

“Congratulations to the NASA and SpaceX teams for the incredible work to make this test flight possible,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible.

Read more about the Crew Dragon at The SpaceX Crew Dragon: This Ain’t Your Parents’ Space Shuttle.

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