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Deno-2 astronauts praise performance of Crew Dragon spacecraft

Behnken and Hurley

WASHINGTON — The NASA astronauts who flew on the SpaceX Demo-2 commercial crew vehicle said they were pleasantly surprised at how well the Crew Dragon spacecraft performed.

At an Aug. 4 press conference, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley praised SpaceX and NASA’s commercial crew program for their work developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft that they returned to Earth in two days earlier, completing a mission that lasted a little more than two months.

“I personally expected there to be more — certainly not issues with the vehicle, but some challenges or some things that were maybe not quite what we expected,” Hurley said, based on his experience flying on space shuttle missions. “The mission went just like the simulators. Honestly, from start to finish, all the way, there were no surprises.”

One example he gave was during reentry, where he expected the vehicle’s attitude control to diverge from plan as the spacecraft fell into the denser lower atmosphere shortly before parachute deployment. “I fully expected that to happen, and it did not,” he said. “The vehicle was rock solid.”

Behnken painted a vivid picture of the reentry as the capsule descended into the atmosphere. “Once we descended a little bit into the atmosphere, Dragon really came alive,” he said, firing thrusters to maintain the proper attitude during reentry.

“As we descended through the atmosphere, the thrusters were firing almost continuously,” he recalled. “It doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise.”

However, he said that he and Hurley were prepared for that, as SpaceX had provided audio from the reentry of the Demo-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft in March 2019. “When it performed as expected and we could check off those events, we were really comfortable coming through the atmosphere, even though it felt like we were in the inside of an animal.”

Original plans for the Demo-2 mission called for a short test flight, spending as little as a few days at the International Space Station. Instead, NASA extended the mission to two months so that Behnken and Hurley could help support station operations at a time when only three people are on board. Hurley said that the extended mission had an added benefit of more thoroughly testing the spacecraft.

“I certainly feel much better from the Crew-1 perspective and subsequent flights of having Dragon docked to station for two months,” he said, referring to the first operational Crew Dragon mission, which will fly four astronauts to the station no earlier than late September. “They should have a lot more confidence that the vehicle does fine in the quiescent mode, docked to station, and there wasn’t anything that wouldn’t have been uncovered had we been up there for just a few days.”

Behnken said there are things that could be improved with the spacecraft, but didn’t go into details. “There are some things that we’ll have some ideas about how we could make better, to make things a little bit more comfortable, or a little bit more efficient inside the vehicle,” he said.

Such feedback, he said, was routine during the shuttle program, even on the program’s final mission, STS-135, whose crew included Hurley. “I know Doug will tell you there are things that could have been improved or would have been improved if we flew a 136,” he said.

NASA and SpaceX will spend the next several weeks reviewing data from the mission and examining the spacecraft itself ahead of a certification review in late August or early September, which will allow Crew-1 and later missions to proceed. Hurley, though, said it would be a few more flights before the vehicle would be ready to fly non-professional astronauts.

“There are certainly things on Dragon that could be tested more,” such as the ability to dock at a different port on the station. “I think it’s going to take a few flights before we can consider this vehicle completely tested.”

But, he added, Crew Dragon is an “outstanding vehicle, and they should be excited to fly on board if they’re lucky enough to do it.”

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Crew Dragon splashes down to end successful test flight

Demo-2 splashdown

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico Aug. 2, successfully completing a test flight and crossing the finish line of the decade-long commercial crew program.

The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour by its crew, splashed down about 70 kilometers south of Pensacola, Florida, at 2:48 p.m. Eastern to end the Demo-2 mission. Recovery boats were on the scene within minutes, with plans to bring the spacecraft onto one of the ships within an hour of splashdown. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were in good health after splashdown, according to NASA.

The splashdown came nearly an hour after the spacecraft jettisoned its trunk section and started a deorbit burn that lasted more than 11 minutes. Preparations for the reentry went smoothly with no major issues reported.

The spacecraft, which arrived at the International Space Station May 31, a day after its launch from Florida, undocked from the station Aug. 1 at 7:35 p.m. Eastern. The spacecraft’s departure from the station went as planned, performing a series of departure burns of its thrusters to prepare for the reentry.

Crew Dragon returned to Earth the two astronauts along with about 150 kilograms of equipment, primarily science payloads being returned to researchers. The astronauts are also returning an American flag that was brought to the station on the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011. That flag, which also flew on the first shuttle mission in 1981, was brought to the ISS to be returned by the next crewed American spacecraft to visit the station, which was the Demo-2 mission.

“This flag has spent some time up here, on the order of nine years since we dropped it off on STS-135,” said Hurley, who was part of the STS-135 crew, during a departure ceremony on the station Aug. 1. “Very proud to return this flag home.”

The successful splashdown marked the conclusion of the final test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft prior to its certification by NASA for routine missions transporting astronauts to and from the station. SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract in 2014 for the final development and testing of the spacecraft, which included an uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019. The contract also includes up to six operational flights to the station.

With the successful end of the Demo-2 mission, those operational flights can begin, years later than originally expected when NASA started the commercial crew program in 2010 with a set of small awards to several companies. Funding shortfalls in the early years of the program, coupled with technical problems, pushed back the first flights of the spacecraft from 2015 to 2020.

Now that Demo-2 has returned safely, NASA now plans to rely on commercial vehicles for transporting astronauts to and from the station. The first operational mission, Crew-1, is scheduled for launch no earlier than late September, carrying three NASA astronauts and one from the Japanese space agency JAXA.

“It’s really establishing the business model for the future,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an appearance on NASA TV Aug. 2 a couple hours before splashdown. “This is the next era for spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer.”

Boeing, the other company developing a commercial crew vehicle for NASA, is still working on its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. That vehicle flew an uncrewed test flight in December 2019 that was cut short by technical problems, including software issues and communications difficulties. Reviews by NASA and Boeing identified about 80 recommendations to address those problems.

Boeing hopes to perform a second uncrewed spaceflight, which the company will fund itself, no earlier than late this year. That will be followed by a crewed flight test, with two NASA astronauts and former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who now works for Boeing, some time in 2021.

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Crew Dragon undocks from space station

Demo-2 undocking

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying two NASA astronauts on a test flight undocked from the International Space Station Aug. 1 ahead of a splashdown less than 24 hours later.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Endeavour by the crew of the Demo-2 mission, undocked from the station’s Harmony module at 7:35 p.m. Eastern and started to maneuver away from the station. The undocking went according to plan and the spacecraft performed a series of thruster burns to move away from the station.

The spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, is scheduled to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Pensacola, Florida, at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Aug. 2, about 50 minutes after a deorbit burn. A backup splashdown zone is off the coast from Panama City, Florida. A recovery ship will pull the capsule out of the water a short time after splashdown and the astronauts will then disembark.

The Demo-2 mission is the final test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before it is certified for routine crew rotation missions to the station. It started with a launch May 30 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, followed by a docking May 31.

Getting back to Earth, though, will be the biggest test for the spacecraft. “The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home,” said Behnken during a farewell ceremony on the station Aug. 1.

During their two months on the station, Behnken and Hurley supported station activities such as research and maintenance. That included four spacewalks by Behnken with Chris Cassidy, who has been on the station since April with two Russian cosmonauts, to complete the replacement of batteries in the station’s power supply.

“We effectively tripled our ability of our work done, and with all three of us having been here before, it was in short order that were running at full steam and getting as many science objectives completed as we could,” Cassidy said during a July 31 media teleconference, adding that he appreciated “having buddies at the chow table” at the end of the day.

Astronauts also tested the spacecraft in orbit, confirming it was working as expected as well as checking how well four people — the complement of future Crew Dragon missions — can operate inside the spacecraft. “For the most part we’ve had pretty good luck with Endeavour as far as on-orbit testing is performed, just like it did for launch and rendezvous,” Hurley said at the July 31 event. “So we expect nothing different for the splashdown.”

“Splashdown is closer than the last time we were asked questions about it, but I still don’t feel nervous about it,” Behnken said.

That splashdown will be the first for a NASA crewed spacecraft since the Apollo spacecraft that participated in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project splashed down in July 1975. About 20 SpaceX Dragon cargo missions splashed down over the past 10 years, as well as the Orion spacecraft on the Exploration Flight Test 1 mission in 2014, but none carried people.

Hurley said July 31 that he reviewed the reports from the astronauts who flew on the Skylab missions in the early 1970s, which splashed down after missions of durations similar to Demo-2. “The water landing portion is pretty challenging from a physiological standpoint,” he said, particularly after spending a couple months in weightlessness.

That includes seasickness. “We’ll both have the appropriate hardware ready should we start feeling a little bit sick on board while we’re in the vehicle after splashdown,” Behnken said, “but we know the team is going to get us pulled up and onboard the ship relatively quickly.”

Asked later what that “appropriate hardware” was, Hurley said it was bags like sickness bags on airliners, along with towels. “It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened in a space vehicle. It would be the first time in this particular vehicle if we do.”

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Weather could postpone Crew Dragon return

Crew Dragon parachutes

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX are ready to wrap up a test flight of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, but poor weather could delay the return of the spacecraft and its two-person crew.

A July 29 “return flight readiness review” by NASA approved plans to wrap up the Demo-2 test flight and bring NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley back to Earth, a little more than two months after their launch to the International Space Station.

The earliest possible undocking of the Crew Dragon is about 7:35 p.m. Eastern Aug. 1, which would set up a splashdown off the Florida coast at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Aug. 2, said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, at a briefing after the review.

That schedule assumes that weather conditions will be favorable for a landing. However, Tropical Storm Isaias is projected to reach Florida Aug. 2. While not forecast to become a hurricane, its winds and rain could postpone a landing.

Even without a threatening tropical storm, NASA said they will have to closely watch weather conditions given the stringent limits for this test flight. “The one that may be the most challenging is wind,” Stich said, with a limit of about 16 kilometers per hour. “This is to protect how the vehicle actually lands in the water and how the water will come up and surround the vehicle at touchdown.”

There are also limits on sea state, including wave height and period, as well as rain. Stich said the goal is to have acceptable weather conditions forecast for at least two of the seven splashdown locations before proceeding with the undocking. Once Crew Dragon undocks, it has enough supplies to remain in orbit for three days.

If weather postpones the first landing opportunity, Stich said the next opportunity to undock would be Aug. 3. “We’ll take it day by day,” he said. “We’ll evaluate the weather each day and see how the weather unfolds.”

The undocking and splashdown will wrap up a mission that both NASA and SpaceX said they’ve been pleased with to date. The Crew Dragon launched on a Falcon 9 May 30 and docked with the ISS the next day. While at the station, engineers have been monitoring its performance and performing various tests, including one where four station crew members boarded the capsule to see how it performs with a full crew complement.

“The systems on Dragon are doing very well. The spacecraft is very healthy,” Stich said. That included an inspection of the spacecraft last weekend by the station’s robotic arm, which saw no evidence of any damage or other issues that would pose a problem for the upcoming return.

Once the spacecraft returns, NASA and SpaceX will inspect the spacecraft and review data as part of a process that will culminate with a formal NASA certification of the spacecraft for operational flights. “Going through that process, leading to certification, takes about six weeks,” Stich said.

That certification will allow that first operational mission, Crew-1, to proceed with a launch scheduled for late September. The Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly that mission is nearing completion at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, factory and will ship to Florida in early August, said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX.

The Demo-2 capsule will be refurbished for use on the Crew-2 mission, which will launch in the spring of 2021. NASA announced July 28 the crew for that mission, which includes NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur along with Akihiko Hoshide of the Japanese space agency JAXA and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.

Reed said that refurbishing the Crew Dragon should be a “very fast process” that can be done at a Florida facility, with the capsule ready for its next mission within a couple of months. Each Crew Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights.

SpaceX won approval from NASA in May to start reusing both the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on commercial crew missions, starting with Crew-2. The company originally proposed flying a new spacecraft on each NASA mission.

“We’ve continued over the last number of years proving the awesomeness of reuse and reflight, and the importance of it,” Reed said of the decision to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft, noting its advantages not just in economics but also safety and reliability. “We were always ready to do it, and it was always part of the plan.”

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Crew Dragon likely to support extended space station stay

Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is performing well enough on orbit to give NASA confidence that the mission can last until August, an agency official said June 9.

Ken Bowersox, the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, told an online meeting of two National Academies committees that NASA had been monitoring the health of the Crew Dragon spacecraft since its launch May 30 on the Demo-2 mission, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.

NASA, he noted, had not set a length for the mission, saying they wanted to see how the Dragon performed in space. “The Dragon is doing very well, so we think it’s reasonable for the crew to stay up there a month or two,” he told members of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board.

NASA said before the launch of Demo-2 that the spacecraft was rated to spend up to 119 days in orbit, with the performance of its solar arrays the limiting factor. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at one pre-launch briefing that NASA was targeting Aug. 30 for the launch of the first fully operational Crew Dragon mission, called Crew-1, and thus would plan to bring the Demo-2 spacecraft back about a month before that launch to provide enough time to review the spacecraft and formally certify Crew Dragon for use on routine crew rotation missions.

The agency’s original plan for Demo-2 was for it to be a short test flight, lasting roughly two weeks, but NASA chose to extend it to address a shortfall in crew time on the station. Only three people, including just one NASA astronaut, Chris Cassidy, were on the ISS at the time Demo-2 launched.

An extended stay would, among other things, allow Behnken and Cassidy, both experienced spacewalkers, to carry out several spacewalks to replace batteries in the station’s power system. Those spacewalks, Bowersox said, would be completed by late July. “About two months from now, we’ll start thinking about bringing Doug and Bob home.”

One issue is restrictions on acceptable winds for landing for the Demo-2 spacecraft, which he said is stricter than the limitations for later Crew Dragon spacecraft. “We’ll need to provide extra lead time for the weather possibilities, but I think it will all work out in August,” he said. “August is often a light wind month in the parts of the Gulf [of Mexico] and the east coast of Florida that we’re looking at landing, so I think we’ll be able to find a good opportunity.”

Bridenstine also mentioned weather as one issue determining when to bring Behnken and Hurley home on the Demo-2 Crew Dragon. “Remember, this is a test flight, and as such, if we have a good window to come home and they’re not necessary on the International Space Station, we will be taking it,” he said at a May 26 briefing.

Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner are intended to restore human orbital spaceflight capability for the United States after the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Those vehicles also promised to offer lower costs to both save NASA money and to attract other customers.

Bowersox, though, said the cost savings that both commercial crew and cargo vehicles provide compared to the shuttle, on a per-seat or per-kilogram basis, aren’t as big as expected. “It’s kind of surprising. We did lower the costs, but we didn’t lower it as much as we were hoping,” he said. “People were hoping for a factor of 10 reduction in costs, right? And we’re just not there. I’d say it’s probably more like 20% to 40%.”

However, he said the commercial vehicles, because they are smaller than the shuttle, are significantly less expensive to operate on a per-flight basis. “If you have more commercial participation, costs can come down more,” he said. “I think there’s tremendous promise. I think we’re on a good path.”

He added that it’s possible that companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX with its next-generation Starship launch system under development might yet achieve that factor of 10 reduction in costs. “I wouldn’t bet against Elon.”

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Commercial crew success prompts congratulations and criticism from Russia

Bridenstine and Rogozin

WASHINGTON — The successful launch of the first crewed orbital flight from the United States in nearly nine years has met with a mixed reaction from Russia, with formal congratulations from Russian leadership but skepticism from others.

While the overall success of the Demo-2 mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon won’t be known until after the spacecraft safely returns to Earth later this summer, its launch May 30 and docking with the International Space Station less than 24 hours later indicates NASA is on the verge of ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz for transporting astronauts to and from the station.

That reliance stimulated the development of Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to give NASA its own means of getting astronauts to and from the station, ending payments to Roscosmos for Soyuz seats whose prices have steadily grown over the years to more than $90 million today.

At a post-launch press conference May 30, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he had not heard from his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos. He said, though, that he had seen other comments by Rogozin that were “overwhelmingly congratulatory towards NASA and SpaceX.”

Those comments have not always been overwhelmingly congratulatory. In 2014, Rogozin, then Russia’s deputy prime minister, suggested retaliating against American sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea by restricting access to Soyuz seats. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” he tweeted.

Six years later, Elon Musk recalled that line. “The trampoline is working!” he said at that post-launch briefing.

Rogozin, in a pair of English-language tweets May 31, offered congratulations. “I wish @NASA team to successfully finish up reconstructing its national space transportation system to the ISS,” he wrote. “Please convey my sincere greetings to @elonmusk (I loved his joke) and @SpaceX team. Looking forward to further cooperation!”

Not everyone in Russia’s space program is as congratulatory as Rogozin’s public comments. The introduction of commercial crew vehicles will mean the end of a source of income for Roscosmos that, at its peak, brought the agency several hundred million dollars a year.

Astronauts from the U.S. and other ISS partners will continue to fly on Soyuz missions, but through a bartering arrangement that will, in turn, see Russian cosmonauts fly on commercial crew vehicles. That “mixed crew” arrangement is intended to ensure that there will be at least one Russian cosmonaut and one astronaut from the U.S., Canada, Europe or Japan on the station in event one class of vehicles was not available.

A veteran Russian cosmonaut, though, believes it’s too soon to start flying Russians on commercial crew vehicles. In an interview with the Russian network NSN published June 7, Pavel Vinogradov said that NASA was “running ahead of the steam engine” by offering to fly Russian cosmonauts on commercial vehicles that had yet to be fully tested and certified.

Vingradov, who flew on three missions to the Russian space station Mir and to the ISS, most recently in 2013, also claimed that Soyuz is cheaper than Crew Dragon, but did not state by how much. “And when it is said that everything in Dragon is cheap and reliable, to put it mildly, not so,” he said.

Vinogradov’s reluctance is echoed by other Russian officials. Former NASA astronaut Tom Stafford, who chairs the agency’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, said at a March 30 meeting that Russian officials he met with last December were reluctant to fly their cosmonauts on initial flights of commercial crew vehicles, also known as U.S. Crew Vehicles, or USCV.

“The Russian side noted that, prior to agreeing to the mixed crew plan, there needs to be successful USCV launches,” he said. “Roscosmos will consider participation after successful launches, but will not participate in the first launch of the vehicle.”

NASA and Musk, though, may get the last laugh. Musk responded to Rogozin’s congratulatory tweet with a response in Russian. “Thank you, sir, ha-ha. We look forward to mutually beneficial and prosperous long-term cooperation.”

A few days after the exchange, Rogozin’s Twitter account was rebranded as an official Roscosmos account, and many of his earlier inflammatory tweets had been deleted.

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Trump campaign pulls space-themed ad after complaints

Trump ad

WASHINGTON — The reelection campaign of President Donald Trump has taken down an online ad tied to the recent Demo-2 commercial crew launch after complaints it appeared to violate NASA media guidelines, and criticism from one person who appeared in it.

The ad, titled “Make Space Great Again!”, was posted on YouTube June 3 by the Trump campaign. Running about two and a half minutes, the ad featured a mix of historical footage, such as from the Apollo program, along with video from the May 30 launch of SpaceX’s Demo-2 commercial crew mission.

Trump attended that launch, and gave a speech at the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building shortly after the Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully reached orbit. But, while the ad included a voiceover by the president, it did not include his remarks from that launch. Instead, the ad appeared to primarily use a speech Trump gave in June 2018 at a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House.

“Once more, we will launch intrepid souls blazing through the sky and soaring into the heavens,” Trump said in a snippet of that 2018 speech played in the ad. “Once more, we will summon the American spirit to tame the next great American frontier.”

The ad makes extensive use of NASA and SpaceX video from the Demo-2 launch, including closeups of the mission’s crew, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Many SpaceX employees, as well as company founder Elon Musk, appear in the video snippets included in the ad.

While NASA makes its images and video widely available, as does SpaceX on many occasions, the prominence of the astronauts in the video appears to be in violation of NASA’s media guidelines.

“Current NASA employees, including astronauts, may not appear in commercial material,” those guidelines state. “If a recognizable person, or talent (e.g., an astronaut or a noted personality engaged to narrate a film) appears in NASA material, use for commercial purposes may infringe a right of privacy or publicity. Permission should be obtained from the recognizable person or talent if the proposed use of the NASA material could be viewed as a commercial exploitation of that person.”

One person who appeared in the ad objected to it. “I find it disturbing that a video image of me and my son is being used in political propaganda without my knowledge or consent. That is wrong,” tweeted Karen Nyberg, a former astronaut who is married to Demo-2 astronaut Doug Hurley. She appears briefly in NASA footage of them wishing Hurley farewell as he and Behnken head to the launch pad.

Less than two hours after Nyberg’s tweet, the video had been removed from YouTube, apparently by the Trump campaign. “This video has been removed by the uploader,” a YouTube error message states. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to an email with questions about the video.

Sources within both NASA and SpaceX, speaking on background, said they were not aware of the ad until after the campaign published it on YouTube. In its brief time online, it generated only a little more than 25,000 views, a small fraction of the traffic that popular videos on the site normally generate.

The video also prompted a petition on the Change.org website calling for its removal. That petition criticized the perception created by the ad that the commercial crew program was an initiative of the Trump administration. It noted that the program formally began during the Obama administration and built upon earlier projects by the Bush administration.

“The implication that any one person was responsible for the SpaceX-NASA Crew Demo-2 launch is an insult to the work of the teams that meaningfully contributed to its success,” stated the petition, which had nearly 4,500 signatories by the time the campaign removed the ad.

Others criticized it for a minor but embarrassing gaffe. In the opening frames of the ad, part of what appears to be a spacesuited astronaut appears on the screen. On the suit, partially obscured but still recognizable, is the logo not of NASA but of the European Space Agency.

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SpaceX Demo-2 Launch (NHQ202005300125) by NASA HQ PHOTO A…

SpaceX Demo-2 Launch (NHQ202005300125)

SpaceX Demo-2 Launch (NHQ202005300125) by NASA HQ PHOTO
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Demo-2 mission is the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The test flight serves as an end-to-end demonstration of SpaceX’s crew transportation system. Behnken and Hurley launched at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to low-Earth orbit for the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

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Crew Dragon docks with ISS

Demo-2 docking with ISS

WASHINGTON — A Crew Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station May 31, less than a day after making history as the first human orbital spaceflight from the United States in nearly nine years.

The spacecraft, named Endeavour by its crew of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, docked with the station’s Harmony module at 10.16 a.m. Eastern. The spacecraft’s approach to the ISS went smoothly, with docking taking place nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

“It’s been a real honor to be be just a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States spaceship has docked with the International Space Station,” said Hurley moments after docking, thanking NASA and SpaceX for their efforts developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.

Behnken and Hurley opened hatches and entered the ISS at 1:22 p.m. Eastern, joining NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 at 3:22 p.m. Eastern May 30, marking the first crewed orbital launch from the United States since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in July 2011. Behnken and Hurley said in a brief NASA TV session early May 31 that the spacecraft was working well.

That included using the manual controls of the spacecraft, which ordinarily operates autonomously. “I want to complement the teams at Hawthorne. Just a spectacular job with the simulator as the vehicle flew exactly like the simulators out in Hawthorne,” Hurley said, referring to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Behnken, though, noted that those simulators weren’t able to fully capture the experience of launch. “Doug and I were talking about all of the observations that we had all the way uphill,” he said. “While it was an exciting ride, I think we got a couple of minor surprises, just in terms of the way the vehicle is moving and shaking.”

While docking took place only 19 hours after liftoff, the two astronauts said they were able to test various aspects of the spacecraft, including the ability to sleep inside the capsule. “Doug and I had a good night’s sleep last night,” Behnken said. “We were surprised, I think, at how well we actually slept aboard the vehicle.”

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Crew Dragon in orbit after historic launch

Falcon 9 Demo-2 launch

Updated 9:05 p.m. with post-launch press conference statements.

WASHINGTON — The first crewed orbital launch from the United States in nearly nine years took place May 30, placing a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft with two NASA astronauts on board into orbit, bound for the International Space Station.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. Eastern. The Crew Dragon spacecraft atop the rocket’s upper stage separated 12 minutes later after achieving low Earth orbit.

“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who founded the company in 2002, said at a post-launch press conference. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal. It’s hard to believe that’s happened.”

“This has been a long time coming,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in post-launch remarks on NASA TV. “It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and now it’s done. We have done it.”

The launch took place on the second attempt for the Demo-2 mission, after the first attempt May 27 was scrubbed less than 20 minutes before the scheduled liftoff because of inclement weather. Weather for this attempt was unsettled for much of the day, with only a 50% chance of acceptable weather in the hours leading up to liftoff. Conditions improved, though, through the afternoon, allowing the launch to proceed.

The Crew Dragon is scheduled to dock with the ISS at about 10:29 a.m. Eastern May 31, 19 hours after launch. After docking, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will remain on the station for up to four months to assist the one NASA astronaut currently on the station, Chris Cassidy, while the next Crew Dragon is prepared for a launch now scheduled for no earlier than Aug. 30.

The spacecraft, which Behnken and Hurley said in a brief downlink a few hours after the launch had been named the “Capsule Endeavour,” in part after the shuttle which both had previously flown on, is working well. NASA officials said while a previous Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the station on an uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, more than a year ago, they’ll be closely watching this spacecraft’s approach to the station.

“You always learn something with spaceflight, and now having a crew on board, and understanding how the crew and the spacecraft operate as a system, and then how that total systems works approaching the station, is another big thing that we’re learning,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, during the press conference. The spacecraft’s extended stay at the ISS, which could be up to four months, is also “a huge learning opportunity for us” to see how well the Crew Dragon and ISS operate as an integrated system.

The launch is the culmination of an effort that dates back more than a decade to develop a successor to the space shuttle for transporting NASA astronauts. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, started by NASA in 2005, supported the development of commercial cargo vehicles, including the original SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The COTS program included an option for crew transportation, but NASA did not exercise that part of its award to SpaceX.

NASA then started the commercial crew program in 2010 with a series of funded Space Act Agreement initiatives to SpaceX and other companies. In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX won Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to complete development and testing of their commercial crew vehicles and for initial flights to the ISS. SpaceX’s award was worth $2.6 billion.

At the time of the CCtCap awards, NASA expected to have the spacecraft completed and certified for flying NASA astronauts by 2017. But development delays pushed back the schedule for both companies, exacerbating earlier delays in the program caused by funding shortfalls.

SpaceX flew the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time in March 2019 on the Demo-1 mission, going to the ISS without a crew on board. That flight was a success, but a little more than a month after the Demo-1 spacecraft splashed down, it was destroyed during a static-fire test of the SuperDraco thrusters in its launch abort system.

That accident pushed back an in-flight abort test of the spacecraft, where the capsule separated from a Falcon 9 rocket in flight, to January. That test was a success, and final testing of the spacecraft, including its revamped parachute system, cleared the way to proceed with the Demo-2 crewed mission.

The delays, along with SpaceX’s focus on other projects, like its Starship launch system, strained the company’s relationship with NASA at times. Just before SpaceX held a media event about Starship at its South Texas site last September, Bridenstine tweeted his frustration: “Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.”

Bridenstine, at the press conference, said that SpaceX had put a new emphasis on commercial crew after that statement. “If you would have told me then that we would be right here today, I don’t know if I would have believed it,” he said, recalling that tweet. “Since that day, Elon Musk and SpaceX have delivered on everything NASA has asked them to deliver on, and at a speed that we never would have guessed.”

Behnken and Hurley both joined the NASA astronaut corps in 2000. Behnken flew on the STS-123 shuttle mission in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010. Hurley flew on STS-127 in 2009 and STS-135, the final space shuttle flight, in 2011. The two joined the commercial crew “cadre” of astronauts in 2015 to train on both the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicles, providing inputs from an astronaut’s perspective for both companies.

“This is a great time in America to be able to do this again,” Hurley said in comments May 20 when he and Behnken arrived at KSC for the launch, calling the development of commercial crew vehicles a “marathon” by NASA and SpaceX. “I think it’s kind of a culmination. It’s that next stage of human spaceflight.”

“I’m breathing a sigh of relief,” Bridenstine said after Crew Dragon reached orbit. “But I will also tell you, I am not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely.”

Musk agreed, arguing that the Crew Dragon’s reentry and landing may be more dangerous than its launch. “We don’t want to declare victory yet,” he said. “We need to bring them home safely.”

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