SpaceX’s historic first test demonstration on its Crew Dragon capsule, that’s intended for human flight, ends its landmark mission as it deems to land, instead splash, safely back to Earth.
A safe return is an essential key in determining SpaceX’s capability of not only taking human astronauts to space but also to bring them home safely. If successful, SpaceX will be tasked to transporting NASA astronauts to and from the IS shortly.
This attempt is the last major step in completing its first demonstration and perhaps the biggest challenge the Crew Dragon faces yet.
The Crew Dragon launched from Earth on Saturday with the whole world witnessing its triumphant arrival into Earth’s orbit and successfully landed on the International Space Station on Sunday.
Today, the Crew Dragon closes its hatches, with no passenger aboard other than Ripley, the space dummy with hi-tech sensors, along with 300 lbs of cargo from the ISS.
The Crew Dragon is set to return to Earth tomorrow with its exit beginning super early on Friday, undocking from the ISS at 2:31 AM ET and continue to zip through orbit for the next five hours. It’ll then spend about 15 minutes firing its engines to slow its descent, allowing the spacecraft to cut back through the Earth’s thick atmosphere safely.
The Crew Dragon is slated for splashdown at around 8:45 AM ET over the Pacific. You read that right; the capsule will be headed towards the ocean.
It’s similar to SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule, that’s intended for carrying equipment to and from the ISS since 2012. After the capsule’s re-entry from space, it deploys a set of parachutes to touch down unto the Pacific Ocean safely. Afterward, a SpaceX team will be sent for retrieval.
But, critics are questioning this way of returning its astronauts from space, since it’s been decades since this method was last used. NASA astronauts used to land in the ocean via parachutes during the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions of the 1960s and ‘70s. Once the Space Shuttle started flying in the 1980s, all astronauts have returned to solid ground when coming back from space.
Other than its landing location, the Crew Dragon’s unique shape from its predecessor also appears to be a challenge that SpaceX needs to conquer. The Dragon cargo, intended for delivering equipment to and from the ISS for NASA since 2012, has a smoother cone-shape capsule. Meanwhile, the Crew Dragon is more asymmetrical.
For those reasons, critics are wary whether the Crew Dragon may perform a successful landing back to Earth after it’s re-entry. The Crew Dragon’s asymmetrical shape may cause instability as it zips through the atmosphere during hypersonic re-entry or is travelling faster than the speed of sound.
The instability may cause the capsule to roll about, prompting the parachute system to become compromised and endanger passengers aboard. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, said in a press conference after the launch on Saturday, “I say hypersonic re-entry is probably my biggest concern.” However, he noted that he thinks this rolling is unlikely, based on simulations the company has run 1,000 times. Moreover, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s president said that the company had done 17 parachute drop tests so far.
The reason behind Crew Dragon’s unique shape, unlike Dragon cargo, is that it’s embedded with eight thrusters escape pods called SuperDracos. This part is a vital addition to the capsule. In case of an emergency, the SuperDracos will deploy from the central capsule and launch the passengers away to safety.
Luckily, no humans will be involved as SpaceX’s tests its theory. But, Ripley the space dummy, will be aboard. The multiple sensors attached to it will gather data and determine how many extra Gs will the actual human feel when riding the Crew Dragon to and from space. Ripley will also be riding with more than 300 pounds of return cargo that
But, SpaceX will need to prove that its shape will not be a challenge as it plunges to the Earth and the four parachutes must deploy leading to a safe landing for its cargo and passengers.
If all is successful, a final key test on Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system is scheduled for June. And the first crewed mission, which will carry astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, is slated for July.
For those waking up early on Friday, you can catch NASA and SpaceX’s live coverage of undocking starting at 2 AM ET and then coverage of the landing begging at 7:00 AM ET.