A four-person crew returns to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Dragon – Ars Technica capsule

Zoom in / SpaceX’s Crew Dragon quest A spacecraft touched down in the Atlantic Ocean early Monday off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule with a crew of four returning from the International Space Station blasted through the atmosphere over Florida and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean early Monday, ending the company’s initial commercial crew contract with NASA.

But SpaceX has at least eight more space station crew rotation missions under contract with the US space agency, as well as additional flights for private customers using the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first crew rotation missions covered by the NASA contract extension launched Aug. 26, and the spacecraft is currently docked at the International Space Station.

The mission launched last month, codenamed Crew-7, is SpaceX’s seventh operational flight of crew rotation to the space station. The four-person crew that arrived at the station aboard Crew-7 will live and work aboard the orbital outpost through February, replacing the Crew-6 mission that returned to Earth early Monday.

closing 186 days in orbit

The return of Crew-6 was delayed by several days due to Hurricane Idalia moving close to SpaceX’s landing areas near Florida. However, the weather cleared, and the seas calmed enough for NASA and SpaceX officials to give the green light to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. quest The spacecraft will leave the space station Sunday morning.

After backing away from the space station, the Dragon spacecraft and its crew of four prepared to re-enter the atmosphere Sunday night. The 13-foot (4-meter) wide capsule fired its braking rockets and closed its nose cone before dropping into the atmosphere, putting on a spectacular show in the midnight sky over Florida as it snaked its way across the sky with a trail of plasma in its wake. .

Four main parachutes were released to slow the ship for a descent northeast of Jacksonville at 12:17 a.m. EDT (04:17 UTC) Monday, as a SpaceX recovery vessel pulled the spacecraft from the sea and helped its four crew members exit. seated.

The Dragon capsule plunged into a 5-foot sea, higher waves than any previous SpaceX crew return, but still within safety limits, according to Steve Stitch, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

“You could see the waves, and the crew did really well in those sea situations,” Stitch said. “And the wind was about 5 knots when landing, so it was a very gentle landing for the crew.”

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule lifts off over Orlando, Florida, on its way to landing.
Zoom in / SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule lifts off over Orlando, Florida, on its way to landing.

Stephen Clark/Ars Technica

NASA Commander Steve Bowen, Pilot Woody Hoburg, and mission specialists Sultan Al Neyadi of the United Arab Emirates and Andrei Fedyaev of Russia appeared to be in good shape after 186 days in orbit since their launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in March. The crew members are expected to undergo medical exams and return to their training base in Houston aboard a NASA plane.

“It was a symbolic return,” said Benji Reid, director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. “Dragon is healthy, the parachutes performed as expected, and our resuscitation teams did great. Dragon did great, and the crew seemed to do great.”

During their six-month journey, Bowen and his colleagues worked on numerous science experiments and conducted three spacewalks to support the installation of new solar panels outside the space station. By combining his experience on this mission with three previous space shuttle flights, Bowen now ranks third all-time in total spacewalk time, at 65 hours and 57 minutes.

Hoburg has shared his experiences on the space station on social media, and has produced insightful videos showing daily life on the International Space Station. His videos captured the orbital restart experiment, training with the station’s robotic arm, and working out in microgravity, among other topics.

“I just wanted to do something that I hoped was real and in the moment without a lot of preparation, and just showed some of the great work we have to do here,” Hoburgh said last month. “So, every time I had a few extra minutes and I thought I was doing something a little bit interesting, I thought of getting out a camera and hopefully sharing it with people so they can see.”

Al Neyadi became the first astronaut from the Arab world to fly on a long-term mission in space, marking a leap forward for the UAE’s rapidly growing space programme. Fedyaev was the second Russian cosmonaut flown by SpaceX to and from the space station as part of an agreement between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Russian cosmonaut Andrei Vediaev, pilot Woody Hoburgh, commander Steve Bowen and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi after returning to Earth.
Zoom in / Russian cosmonaut Andrei Vediaev, pilot Woody Hoburgh, commander Steve Bowen and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi after returning to Earth.

After the plane lands Monday, the Crew Dragon will be brought in by SpaceX’s recovery team quest The spacecraft returns to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a replenishment before its fifth flight to the space station on the next NASA crew mission in February. Meanwhile, there is another crew rotation on the International Space Station later this month with the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on September 15 carrying two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA cosmonaut to the orbiting laboratory, replacing a three-person crew that wraps up More than a year in orbit.

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SpaceX is going, not Boeing

In 2014, NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop and fly new commercial crew capsules to ferry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station. These contracts covered similar scopes of work, with space capsule test flights for each company followed by six operational crew rotation missions to the International Space Station.

With the return of the Crew-6 mission, SpaceX’s work under the original commercial crew contract has been completed. Meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has yet to lift off from Earth with astronauts on board.

Boeing’s delays prompted NASA to award contract extensions to SpaceX to cover eight additional Crew Dragon flights to the space station, each lasting up to seven months, at an average cost of $277 million per mission. SpaceX’s entire commercial crew contract since 2014 is valued at more than $4.9 billion, according to NASA.

NASA’s commercial crew agreements with Boeing are worth more than $5.1 billion, and the company is still at least six months away from launching two NASA astronauts on a short-duration test flight to the International Space Station. There is still a chance that the first of Boeing’s six Starliner flights will launch in late 2024, but that likely won’t happen until 2025.

Reid, who leads human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said Monday’s return of the Crew-6 mission had “an extra special meaning” to him.

“We started this program to help NASA get astronauts to the station and back home several years ago, and this represents the final mission that was originally envisioned in the original contract, and what an honor it is to be able to be a part of this,” he said. The entire course so far.

So now SpaceX is on the hook for no fewer than 14 NASA crew rotation missions, plus the first Crew Dragon test mission with astronauts that SpaceX flew in 2020. SpaceX has also launched three full commercial Crew Dragon flights – an entirely private, autonomous mission called Inspiration4. and two short commercial flights to the International Space Station for Axiom Space, bringing the total number of human spaceflight missions launched by SpaceX to 11.

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SpaceX's recovery team lifts the Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft from the Atlantic Ocean early Monday.  This spacecraft has now flown in space for 466 days on four missions.
Zoom in / SpaceX’s recovery team lifts the Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft from the Atlantic Ocean early Monday. This spacecraft has now flown in space for 466 days on four missions.

Aside from Crew-7, which is already in orbit, SpaceX has 12 other Crew Dragon missions under contract — seven for NASA, two for Axiom, two for the Polaris program led by billionaire Jared Ezekman, and one available to fly with a crew. to an outpost being developed by the private space station company Vast.

There are sure to be more human spaceflight contracts to come SpaceX’s way as other companies plan to build their own space stations in low Earth orbit. NASA can also purchase more Crew Dragon missions.

SpaceX currently has four Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft in its fleet —quest, Resilience, to bearAnd freedom— and plans to add another one to next year’s rotation. NASA has certified each spacecraft for five long-duration missions to the space station. questWhich returned to Earth on Monday, will reach this threshold on its next flight.

SpaceX wants to fly each capsule up to 15 times, Reed said. “All the data so far suggests that this is possible,” he said. “It’s critical that we work with our partners at NASA to make sure that this makes sense for them as well, and that we can certify the vehicle to do so.”

SpaceX typically removes the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s heat shield after each flight and refurbishes the shield’s composite structure, adding new thermal protection tiles for each mission. The propellant is drained and refilled between missions as well.

Stitch, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, said ground teams will be closely examining the Crew Dragon’s propulsion system. quest The spacecraft after returning to Earth. Engineers want to see if there are any signs of wear on the thrust valves after the isolation valve became stuck on the last Dragon cargo mission to the space station.

“We want to take a look at that stuff,” Stitch said. “Of course, this problem was discovered after this vehicle was already in space. So we’ll take some time to look at this system and get it back to normal, and the goal is for Crew-8 to fly no later than February.” “.

Reid said he anticipates that “a certain amount of additional renewal” will be needed to extend certification for each Crew Dragon spacecraft beyond five missions. “But I’m very optimistic about getting to 15.”

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