Following the launch of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) Dragon 2 spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) DM-2 mission in May, the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. supplier and equipment manufacturer. this year, both entities are now preparing to return astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to Earth safely. The DM-2 mission plans to evaluate the Dragon 2 for the commercial launch of astronauts to the ISS, and the vehicle’s return to Earth will mark the final stage of this evaluation.
To that end, NASA officials and a representative of SpaceX held a Return Flight Readiness Review briefing earlier today to provide details about the return of the two astronauts. The agency currently hopes that the pair will depart the ISS on August 1 at 7:34 AM ET and land on Earth the next day at 2:42 PM ET, after traveling approximately 19 hours.
SpaceX DM-2 Dragon 2 spacecraft will fly with Mission Crew-2 in the spring of 2021 after replacing solar panels and other components
Mr. Steve Stich, manager of the service’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), provided details about the decoupling of the DM-2 Dragon 2 and highlighted the service’s plans to ensure that the spacecraft returns safely to Earth’s surface. According to the official, the hatch for the vehicle will be closed on Saturday at 4:40 CT, and if the weather conditions are favorable, the Dragon 2 will be disconnected from the ISS two hours later at 7:30 CT. During this process, the space agency has several decision points to confirm that the spacecraft can crash safely. Six hours before decoupling, the cargo is brought on board the vehicle, the moment also marking the main decision point 2 for decoupling the vehicle.
NASA currently has seven landing sites for the Dragon 2 splashdown. These are located in Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee, Tampa, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Cape Canaveral off the coast of Florida. Of these, Panama City, Tallahassee and Tampa were added after the initial readiness for flight readiness revealed Mr Stich during the briefing. NASA has also tested the vehicle to support a crew of four, with tests covering meal preparation, hygiene options, and crew members’ ability to sleep on the seats.
To successfully land and remain undamaged throughout the entire process, the Dragon 2 should not encounter wind speeds higher than 15 feet per second (10 miles per hour). This is because a higher wind speed endangers the water damage of the vehicle due to water damage. Wave characteristics, including altitude and period, will also be monitored to ensure that the heat shield avoids structural damage and that the helicopter that takes Behnken and Hurley away from the vehicle can safely land on the salvage ship. In addition, SpaceX also has the option of landing the pair back by ship, with the final decision dependent on the choice of landing site.
SpaceX’s crew mission management director, Mr. Benjamin Reed, confirmed the company’s disconnection, stakeout and landing procedure and highlighted the steps the vehicle will take after the hatch is closed. The first step is the automated disconnection of the Dragon 2 from the space station, followed by a combustion on departure, after which the vehicle’s SuperDraco thrusters will start the phase burns. The phase burns precede the trunk of the vehicle, after which the longest burns of the mission take place before it comes back in. These are the burns in the orbit of the vehicle to orient it to the landing sites on Earth.
SpaceX has also confirmed that it will be able to initiate the recovery process of the Dragon 2 aboard the salvage vessel, similar to the procedures for the Falcon 9 launch vehicles. Mr. Reed also revealed that the company is targeting the Easter Coast landing sites for Dragon 2 re-entry due to a nearby Dragon facility for pre-launch preparations and post-entry renovation. The renovation includes panel removal for analysis, component replacement and component upgrades after flight experience.
In addition, the Dragon 2 DM-2 vehicle will also use a new trunk as soon as it airs in the spring of 2021. The timeline was confirmed during today’s briefing and Mr. Reed also confirmed that the vehicle renovation process will include improved solar panels. The vehicle’s current solar panels that generate power while coupled to the ISS met all NASA expectations and were the biggest constraint on the length of the DM-2 mission due to degradation in the harsh space environment. SpaceX has also designed the Dragon 2 for at least five re-uses, the company confirmed today, with the spacecraft also having a shorter renovation time than its predecessor, the Dragon 1.