What to expect from Space-X Crew Dragon‘s return to Earth

On 30th May 2020, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken became the first NASA astronauts to be launched into orbit from American soil using an American rocket since the end of the Shuttle programme in 2011, and the first people ever to do so in a commercial vehicle. They were taking part in the first crewed test of Space-X’s Crew Dragon capsule (which they named ‘Endeavour‘) and have been onboard the International Space Station since then.

On 2nd August 2020 they will return to Earth. Here’s what you need to know about that process.

DM-2 with astronauts Hurley and Behnken blasts off from Cape Canaveral | Credit: NASA

What time will the return process start and how long will it take?

As things stand, Hurley and Behnken are set to undock from the International Space Station in Endeavour at 23:34 UTC on Saturday 1st August.

Splashdown is currently pencilled in for 18:42 UTC.

NASA, however, are currently keeping an eye on a potential tropical storm which would make landfall in Florida just ahead of Hurley and Behnken’s targeted landing time. If conditions do not look favourable NASA could postpone their departure a few days.

Where will they land?

NASA and Space-X have seven possible splashdown sites (off the coasts of Pensacola, Tampa, Tallahassee, Panama City, Cape Canaveral, Daytona and Jacksonville), with NASA stating that a decision will be made about which one will be selected approximately six hours before undocking based on the forecasted weather conditions.

The uncrewed Demo-1 capsule splashes down off the coast of Florida after its return from the International Space Station in March 2019 | Credit: NASA

What’s significant about their method of landing?

Hurley and Behnken’s landing will mark the first time since the Soyuz 23 mission of 1976 that people returning from space will land on water rather than on solid ground, and the first time since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975 that they will do so intentionally. Soyuz 23 landed mistakenly on a partially frozen lake after a planned docking with the Salyut 5 space station was aborted.

The Space Shuttle landed on runways either at Edwards Air Force Base in California or at Cape Canaveral, while the Russian Soyuz capsules – shared with American astronauts after the Shuttle was retired – parachute to a landing in the deserts of Kazakhstan (when they go according to plan that is).

What happens once they’ve splashed down?

After making several burns (firing of its thrusters), Endeavour will begin the process of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 17,500 miles an hour.

Two drogue parachutes will deploy at 18,000 feet to stabilise the capsule, stop it from rocking and slow it down. This will be followed by the four main parachutes at 6,000 feet.

Once Endeavour is bobbing in the ocean, two fast boats from the recovery ship will make their way over to check that there is no major damage to the capsule and to recover the parachutes.

They will be followed by the main recovery ship. Space-X has two recovery ships named the Go Searcher and the Go Navigator. Which one will be used will depend on whether Endeavour comes down in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Atlantic. Endeavour will be lifted onboard, at which point the hatch will be opened to allow for Hurley and Behnken to be briefly checked over by medical professionals and extracted.

Once a more thorough medical check has been conducted, the two astronauts will be transported by helicopter to Cape Canaveral and then by plane to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas.

What will happen to their capsule?

Endeavour, like all of Space-X’s Crew Dragon capsules, is designed to be reusable. After it has been checked out and certified as flight-worthy again, NASA plans on using it on their Crew-2 mission, scheduled for early 2021. Fittingly, on the crew of that mission is Megan McArthur – Bob Behnken’s wife.

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