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ULA, SpaceX win landmark multibillion-dollar launch agreements with Pentagon

Artist’s concept of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX beat out Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for billions of dollars in U.S. military rocket contracts, and will share the load in launching the Pentagon’s highest-priority national security space missions through 2027, officials announced Friday.

ULA, the 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027. SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not select proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The agreements cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies, providing an anchor customer for SpaceX and ULA.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO, and our launch service industry partners,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space.”

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX are part of Phase 2 of the Pentagon’s effort to transition military satellite launches off of rockets using Russian-made RD-180 engines, and onto vehicles with U.S.-built engines. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has launched more national security satellites than any other rocket currently in service, and its first stage is powered by the RD-180 engine.

The procurement strategy is also intended to reduce launch costs for the Pentagon.

“We have been stuck on Russian RD-180 engines for too long,” Roper said Friday in a conference call with reporters. It is a risk to our national security, so many years ago the Air Force decided to create an acquisition strategy to get us through the sole-source environment that we were in with a single rocket provider, and still tied to Russian engines, (and) build up a competitive U.S. industry base that would ultimately culminate in today, in a Phase 2 award to two vendors.”

The announcement Friday also marked the end of a hard-fought competition between four major players in the U.S. space industry for a chance at billions of dollars in revenue from lucrative military launch contracts.

ULA is developing the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, with all U.S.-made engines, to replace its Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, and SpaceX offered the Pentagon its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets already in service, albeit with some modifications to meet the military’s demanding launch requirements.

“ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs.

“For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions,” Bruno said in a statement.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the Pentagon launch contract award.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle were also in the running.

Despite losing out on the Phase 2 awards with their own rockets, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin will still get business through national security launches. Northrop Grumman will supply solid rocket boosters and Blue Origin will build BE-4 main engines for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“We evaluated every proposal by the published award criteria, technical factors being first and foremost, then followed by past performance, their ability to work with small business, and then finally totally evaluated price,” Roper said. “Every proposal is evaluated. We call the ball and strikes as they are, and the ability to meet those technical factors — to do the mission –is the most important thing above all.”

For nearly a decade, the Pentagon awarded sole-source national security launch contracts to ULA, which builds and operates the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets that have delivered to orbit nearly all of the military’s large reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation and missile warning satellites currently in use.

But rising launch costs, pressure from upstart SpaceX, and worsening diplomatic relations with Russia prompted the Air Force to rethink its rocket procurement strategy for the military’s highest-priority space missions. Congress also passed a law in 2014 — after Russia’s annexation of Crimea — that capped the number of RD-180 engines the military could use to launch national security satellites before transitioning to a rocket with U.S.-made propulsion.

File photo of a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The highest-priority class of payloads was previously part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. Last year, military officials renamed the EELV program as the National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, program as the Pentagon moved into a new era of launch services, which include reusable rockets.

The Air Force ended competition for its EELV-class missions when the Pentagon approved the Boeing and Lockheed Martin consolidation in 2006, a decision ULA and military officials said was necessary to ensure the survival of the Atlas and Delta rocket families to launch U.S. national security satellites.

Pentagon officials say the military needs two independent launchers to ensure crucial payloads can get to space even if one of the rockets is grounded.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security satellites in 2015, a process the military promised to speed up after SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force the previous year protesting the Pentagon’s $11 billion “block buy” sole-source order of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in 2013.

Military officials made more launch contracts available for competition between ULA and SpaceX in an intermediate “Phase 1A” procurement round before moving on to Phase 2, which required rockets use only U.S.-made engines.

The Air Force awarded funding to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in 2016 as part of cost-sharing public-private partnerships with industry to advance research and development of new U.S. rocket propulsion systems.

In 2018, the Air Force selected Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance for the next round of launch service agreement awards. Those agreements were cumulatively valued at around $2.3 billion.

SpaceX, which was the only company competing with a rocket already flying, was left out of the development contracts awarded in 2018.

The Pentagon also announced Friday the first three firm-fixed-price launch contracts awarded by the U.S. Space Force under the NSSL program’s Phase 2 agreements.

Two of those missions, designated USSF-51 and USSF-106, were awarded to ULA for launches in the the first quarter and third quarter of calendar year 2022. SpaceX won a task order to launch the USSF-67 mission in the third quarter of calendar year 2022.

ULA received $337 million in the task orders announced Friday, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million.

If ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which scheduled to debut in 2021, is not certified for the national security missions in 2022, ULA could offer an Atlas 5 rocket — with its Russian-made engine — as an alternative for the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions.

A contract announcement posted on a Defense Department website said the contracts include “early integration studies, launch service support, fleet surveillance, launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations, mission assurance, spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for each mission.”

Roper said of the 18 RD-180 engines Congress has allowed the Pentagon to buy through 2022 for national security missions, 12 remain available for purchase. There’s no prohibition on when the engines can actually launch a national security mission, just that the Pentagon can’t procure any more launches using the RD-180 engines after 2022.

“By the end of ’22, we cannot buy any more RD-180 engines,” Roper said. “We do have 12 engines that are available should we need to use those engines beyond the ’22 mark. We’re allowed to use them. We’re just allowed to purchase more. So the reason that this Phase 2 award weighted technical performance — technical merit — as the No. 1 priority is that we have to ensure that we get off of those engines.

“I’m very confident with the selection that we have made today that we have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available, though we’re glad to know it’s there should we need it.”

The three task orders unveiled Friday are just the tip of the iceberg for ULA and SpaceX, which stand to compete head-to-head for dozens more national security launches contracts over the next four years. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, will order launch services annually from ULA and SpaceX, the military said in a statement.

Roper said military officials estimated SMC would order 32 to 34 national security launches during the five-year period covered by the Phase 2 agreements. But there is some uncertainty in that number, Roper said.

“It is an indefinite quantity contract because we wanted to be ready for a number of launches that can be in flux,” Roper said Friday.

That will help ensure ULA and SpaceX can relay on a steady “drum beat” of launches for the Pentagon, supplementing commercial missions on their launch manifests, he said.

“So there’s no ceiling on this contract,” Roper said. “It’s driven by the number of launches that we and the NRO, and organizations like the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Development Agency need.

“We’re very excited within the Space Force to provide a launch capability to the entire department that its dependable and reliable, and we look forward to building on the 81-out-81 mission success that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, has provided over the past years,” Roper said.

Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s planned OmegA rocket, which lost out in the Pentagon’s Phase 2 launch contract awards. The OmegA rocket’s design is based on two solid-fueled core stages and a liquid-fueled upper stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have the lift capacity to meet the Pentagon’s launch requirements, which include access to unusual, hard-to-reach orbits, there will be some changes on the launch vehicles and ground systems to accommodate the new missions.

For the Pentagon’s Phase 2 missions, SpaceX did not propose using the company’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle.

“It’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, no Starship,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, last year. “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.

“There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2,” she said. “I believe some of the reference orbits have slightly more mass to each orbit. But Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are beasts as they are.”

The most significant upgrades SpaceX plans for the Phase 2 missions are the construction of a new moveable gantry on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the company launches powerful Falcon Heavy rockets. The mobile tower will sit just to the north of the pad’s launch mount, enabling SpaceX to satisfy military requirements to vertically integrate sensitive top secret spy satellites.

Read our earlier story for details on the dimensions and requirement for the gantry.

SpaceX will also introduce a larger payload envelope to fit some of the biggest satellites that need to be launched on the Phase 2 missions. The company could expand its Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to accommodate the Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 first stage boosters bolted together.

The NSSL missions include the military’s most expensive and critical payloads, such as school bus-sized spy satellites, nuclear-hardened communications satellites to link the president with military commanders, spacecraft to detect enemy missile launches, and the GPS navigation fleet used around the world.

The Space Force has other launch procurement mechanisms to award launch service contracts for smaller missions, such as technology demonstration satellites.

Roper said the Pentagon will work with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to wind down their work under the launch service agreements awarded in 2018.

“The goal is not to carry them indefinitely,” Roper said. “So we will tie off the (launch service agreement) contracts as soon as we can at a point that makes sense. We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document that … Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure that we retain those.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it was disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision to go with ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 awards.

“We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected out extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer,” Northrop Grumman said.

The fate of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket program is uncertain. Building on its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, the defense contractor designed the OmegA launch vehicle to be profitable with just a handful of launches per year, with an emphasis on capabilities aimed at the U.S. military’s requirements.

In recent months, construction crews have been assembling a tower on a mobile launch platform for the OmegA rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in June that qualification test-firings of the OmegA rocket’s solid-fueled stages were completed, and engineers were gearing up for a test-firing of the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled upper stage before the end of this year.

Precourt said in June that the OmegA rocket was on schedule to be ready for its first test launch from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2021. But that assumed Northrop Grumman would win a Phase 2 award from the Pentagon.

Blue Origin says development of its New Glenn rocket will continue in pursuit of business in the commercial and civil space markets.

The huge privately-developed rocket is the largest of all the launchers that were part of the Phase 2 competition. Capable of deploying up to 99,000 pounds, or 45 metric tons, to low Earth orbit, the New Glenn will have a reusable first stage powered by seven BE-4 engines.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket will have two methane-fueled BE-4 engines on its first stage.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, established Blue Origin in 2000. Bezos is funding the development of the New Glenn rocket, which is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion, including construction of a huge factory near the Kennedy Space Center and a launch pad and test facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, said the company was disappointed the New Glenn was not selected for a Phase 2 launch service procurement contract.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” Smith said. “Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts,” Smith said. “We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security.”

The Pentagon plans to open another competition for a Phase 2 launch service procurement later in the 2020s.

“We don’t think that this is the last round of innovation that we’re going see, and though we’re excited for the next five years of Phase 2, we’re looking ahead to Phase 3 five years from now, and are just wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper,” Roper said.

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SpaceX closes out busy week with launch of more Starlink satellites

A Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT) Friday. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

With a Falcon 9 rocket launch Friday, SpaceX added 57 more satellites to the Starlink broadband fleet and deployed a pair of piggyback commercial Earth-imaging reconnaissance satellites for BlackSky, wrapping up a busy week that began with SpaceX’s return of two NASA astronauts to Earth and the first low-altitude test flight of the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle.

The 59 commercial satellites took off at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life with a deep rumble to hurl the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket into the sky with 1.7 million pound of thrust. After pitching to align with a trajectory toward the northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 soared into the stratosphere trailing a brilliant orange exhaust plume before shutting down its first stage engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Seconds later, the first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage to begin a guided descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The Merlin engine on the second stage ignited two times to maneuver the Starlink and BlackSky satellites to a near-circular orbit nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster flew to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel, a football field-sized platform positioned nearly 400 miles (around 630 kilometers) downrange from the Kennedy Space Center.

Two BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites, each with a mass of about 121 pounds (55 kilograms), deployed from the top of the stack of Starlink spacecraft more than an hour into the mission. BlackSky booked the launch for its satellites through Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare broker, utilizing room in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload compartment made available by SpaceX.

Read our earlier story for background on BlackSky and SpaceX’s rideshare launch service offering.

BlackSky is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two microsatellites on Friday’s mission are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The BlackSky satellites were built by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

The satellites have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant. Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

With the piggyback payloads away, the Falcon 9’s upper stage spun up for release of the 57 Starlink satellites at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT). Live video beamed back to Earth from the Falcon 9 rocket showed the flat-panel satellites flying free of the upper stage as they soared nearly 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean near Baja California.

SpaceX declared success, concluding the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th Falcon 9 launch of the year. It was also the 57th time SpaceX has recovered a reusable Falcon first stage booster, and it marked the fifth flight of the booster designated B1051.

The launch early Friday came less than five days after the return of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, completing the ship’s first mission with crew members on-board. The test flight sets the stage for NASA’s certification of the Crew Dragon for regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, SpaceX performed a low-altitude “hop” test of a prototype of the company’s next-generation Starship space transportation vehicle.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. With Friday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 595 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft launched Friday will carry the sunshades.

Coupled with changes in how the satellites are oriented when they are at lower altitudes soon after launch, the sun visors could alleviate the most serious impacts on astronomy from the Starlink network, and eliminate the Starlink satellites from naked eye vision once they reach their 341-mile-high operational orbit.

SpaceX plans to fly a sunshade structure on new Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The Vera Rubin Observatory’s 3,200-megapixel camera will start astronomical surveys in 2022. Each image will cover a region of the sky the size of 40 full moons, and many of the images will include light streaks left by satellites from the Starlink network, and potentially other satellite constellations.

The worst impacts will come after dusk and before dawn. That’s a time of day when astronomers want to search for asteroids.

Astronomers on the Vera Rubin Observatory team say SpaceX has been working with them since last year to try to reduce the impacts of the Starlink network on their scientific program. Astronomers illuminated a Vera Rubin imaging detector in a test to see how it would respond to the passage of a satellite as bright as a Starlink. They found the satellite leaves behind not just a single trail, but “ghost” trails away from the spacecraft’s path.

Scientists from Vera Rubin Observatory said the ghost artifacts could be removed with software if the Starlink satellites are dimmer than 7th magnitude. Observations of the Starlink spacecraft with the darker coating indicate that change dimmed the satellite to about 6.1 magnitude, somewhat shy of Vera Rubin’s requirement.

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After delays, Falcon 9 rocket back on launch pad with Starlink satellites

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 39A on Thursday morning. Credit: Spaceflight Now

After a six-week delay for undisclosed reasons, SpaceX raised a Falcon 9 vertical on its launch pad Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for another try early Friday to send into orbit the company’s next batch of Starlink Internet relay stations and a pair of commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging microsatellites.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher is set for takeoff at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) Friday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center with 57 more Starlink satellites.

It will be SpaceX’s first launch to carry a full set of Starlink satellites equipped with new sunshades, or visors, in an attempt to make the spacecraft less visible to ground-based telescopes, addressing concerns voiced by astronomers that thousands of Starlink satellites could interfere with scientific observations.

“All Starlink satellites on this flight are equipped with a deployable visor to block sunlight from hitting the brightest spots of the spacecraft — a measure SpaceX has taken as part of our work with leading astronomical groups to mitigate satellite reflectivity,” SpaceX says on its website.

Two commercial Earth observation satellites from BlackSky will accompany the Starlink payloads into orbit, taking advantage of SpaceX’s rideshare service, which sells excess capacity on Falcon 9 missions to other companies.

The mission set for launch Friday was originally supposed to take off in late June, but SpaceX has delayed the flight multiple times. The company has not disclosed any details about the nature of the problems — other than weather — that have delayed the Starlink/BlackSky mission.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was supposed to take off June 26, but SpaceX delayed the mission to conduct additional pre-launch checkouts, the company said on Twitter. A launch attempt July 8 was scrubbed minutes before liftoff by poor weather.

SpaceX called off another launch attempt July 11, and the company again said officials made the decision “to allow more time for checkouts,” without providing further details.

The concerns that delayed the Starlink/BlackSky launch have not affected other SpaceX missions.

SpaceX successfully launched two Falcon 9 rockets June 30 and July 20 from Cape Canaveral with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite and the Anasis 2 military communications satellite for South Korea.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was tentatively planned to launch last week from the Kennedy Space Center, but there were range safety concerns about the Falcon 9 rocket taking off from a pad near where NASA’s Perseverance rover — with a nuclear power generator on-board — was being readied for takeoff.

SpaceX says the Falcon 9 rocket poised for launch Friday will be powered by a kerosene-fueled first stage booster that previously flew on four missions, beginning with the launch of the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship on its first unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station on March 2, 2019.

Since then, the reusable first stage booster — designated B1051 — launched and landed successfully on missions June 12, 2019, and Jan. 29 and April 22 of this year. This will be the fifth flight of this particular first stage booster.

The launch early Friday will be the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th launch by SpaceX so far this year.

A Falcon 9 first stage booster lands on SpaceX’s drone ship Jan. 29 in the Atlantic Ocean following a previous Starlink launch. The same booster will launch again on Friday’s mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s launch team will ready the rocket for loading of super-chilled, densified propellants Thursday night, before the start of the countdown’s automated sequencer at 12:37 a.m. EDT (0437 GMT).

At that time, kerosene and liquid oxygen will begin pumping aboard the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, and kerosene will start flowing into the rocket’s second stage. At 12:56 a.m. EDT (0456 GMT), SpaceX will start filling the second stage with its liquid oxygen supply.

In the final 10 minutes of the countdown, the Falcon 9 will begin chilling its engine plumbing for ignition, activate and check out its hydraulic systems, and pressurize its cryogenic propellant tanks for flight.

Nine Merlin 1D engines will flash to life at the base of the Falcon 9 rocket, and hold-down clamps will open to allow the launcher to fly away from pad 39A at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT).

Heading northeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Falcon 9 will surpass the speed of sound before shutting down its first stage engines at T+plus 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Four seconds later, the booster will separate to begin a controlled descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” parked in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles (about 630 kilometers) downrange from Cape Canaveral.

The booster will target a propulsive landing on the floating platform nearly eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s second stage will ignite its single powerful Merlin 1D engine at T+plus 2 minutes, 44 seconds, to drive the 57 Starlink satellites and two BlackSky payloads into a preliminary orbit.

The second stage engine will shut down at T+plus 8 minutes, 51 seconds, to begin a coast halfway around the world before reigniting for a few seconds at T+plus 47 minutes, 18 seconds.

That will inject the Starlink and BlackSky satellites into a near-circular orbit ranging in altitude between 241 miles (388 kilometers) and 249 miles (401 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

The two BlackSky satellites will deploy from the top of the stack of Starlink satellites 61 and 66 minutes after liftoff.

BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two 121-pound (55-kilogram) satellites on Friday’s mission will become the fifth and sixth operational spacecraft in BlackSky’s fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The deployment of the BlackSky payloads will set the stage for separation of the 57 Starlink spacecraft at T+plus 1 hour, 33 minutes, or at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT).

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

With Friday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit since May 2019.

SpaceX plans to debut a new sunshade structure on its future Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft on the launch Friday will carry the sunshades.

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ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders if they can accelerate the transition of C-band services to a smaller swath of spectrum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s mandated deadline.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with operators with a smaller share of the U.S. C-band market — will also be reimbursed for their C-band relocation costs, including satellite manufacturing and launch expenses.

As part of the agreement, the satellite operators were incentivized to buy new C-band broadcasting satellites from U.S. manufacturers to operate in the 4.0 to 4.2 gigahertz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 megahertz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

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SpaceX clears big hurdle on next-gen Starship rocket program

Credit: Video frame from live stream by @SpacePadreIsle.

A prototype rocket for a massive reusable vehicle SpaceX is designing to fly people to the moon and Mars took off from a launching stand in South Texas on Tuesday, flew to a height of roughly 500 feet, then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing pad.

The 500-foot (150-meter) “hop” test was the first of a Starship rocket with full-size propellant tanks, and it sets the stage for a series of progressively higher atmospheric demonstration flights with future vehicles. Eventually, SpaceX aims to shoot the Starship into orbit on top of an even taller booster rocket named the “Super Heavy” to deliver to space huge cargo loads, satellites, telescopes, and science probes.

SpaceX’s longer-term roadmap includes an in-orbit refueling capability to make trips to the moon possible. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as one of three contenders — alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics — for a human-rated lunar lander the space agency will fund for crewed moon missions later this decade.

And the Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, who established the company with a mission of sending people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.

“Mars is looking real,” Musk tweeted after Tuesday’s test flight. “Progress is accelerating.”

That mission took a step closer to reality with Tuesday’s test flight, which was intended to test out the Starship’s guidance system, the structural strength of its stainless steel tanks, and a number of other basic functions before attempting launches to higher altitudes.

The Starship test flight Tuesday capped a busy few days for SpaceX. The company’s first human-rated Crew Dragon spaceship returned to Earth Sunday with a smooth splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing home NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken after a 64-day test flight to the International Space Station.

SpaceX followed that up with an attempt to fly the Starship Monday evening in South Texas, but the company aborted the flight just before takeoff. Another countdown Tuesday afternoon was likewise aborted before SpaceX pressed ahead with a successful flight Tuesday evening.

One of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, fed by methane and liquid oxygen, powered the Starship off its launch platform at 7:57 p.m. EDT (6:57 p.m. CDT; 2357 GMT) Tuesday. The throttleable Raptor engine produces up to 440,000 pounds of thrust at full power, according to SpaceX, and it’s the most powerful methane-fueled rocket engine ever flown.

Live videos of the test streamed on YouTube showed the rocket climb away from the launch stand at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas, located just east of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border. After swiveling its Raptor engine to maintain control, the shining silver testbed reached its maximum altitude before commencing its descent, deploying landing legs, and settling on flat ground after laterally covering about the length of a football field in its approximately 45-second flight.

SpaceX has additional Starship vehicles in production at the Boca Chica site, and one of those could attempt a flight up to 65,000 feet, or 20 kilometers. A timetable for that test flight has not been announced by SpaceX or Elon Musk.

The higher-altitude experiments will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future Starship vehicles, along with fins and other aerosurfaces. Higher flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally goes to a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle that flew Tuesday measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, according to SpaceX, making it the most powerful rocket ever built — generating some 16 million pounds of thrust.

An operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX says.

SpaceX had a rocky road reaching Tuesday’s milestone test flight, but engineers tweaked the Starship’s design and introduced improved manufacturing techniques to address structural deficiencies that led to the loss of four Starship prototypes during ground testing since late last year.

Each explosion during testing proved little more than a minor setback, and SpaceX quickly moved on to the next Starship prototype as part of the company’s fast-paced iterative development process.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship prototype could perform a high-altitude atmospheric test flight before the end of 2019. That didn’t happen, but the high-altitude flight now appears within reach.

SpaceX says it will eventually replace its current fleet of space vehicles — the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and the Dragon spaceship — with the Starship. But those vehicles won’t be retired until SpaceX proves out the Starship’s capabilities and reliability.

NASA officials were closely watching the Starship test flight Tuesday, which followed a successful test-firing of the vehicle on the launch stand at Boca Chica last week. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, tweeted his congratulations to SpaceX.

While NASA is considering the commercial Starship rocket as a vehicle to ferry astronauts between lunar orbit and the moon’s surface, the agency’s plans for returning humans to the moon in the 2020s relies on the government-owned Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule to transport astronauts from the Earth to the vicinity of the moon.

Once in orbit around the moon, the Orion crew capsule would link up with a human-rated lunar lander — possibly a Starship — to fly the astronauts to the moon’s surface, then boost them back into space to rendezvous with Orion for the return trip to Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the SLS and Orion vehicles offer the only opportunity to launch astronauts off the Earth toward the moon by 2024, the timetable for a crewed lunar landing set last year by the Trump administration. But that could after 2024 if SpaceX’s Starship, or other vehicles, come online.

NASA has purchased rides for astronauts on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX is under contract to deliver cargo to the planned Gateway mini-space station in lunar orbit — a future staging point for expeditions to the moon’s surface — beginning as soon as 2024.

In April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said SpaceX’s Starship “could be absolutely game-changing” for space exploration.

“So we don’t want to discount it,” Bridenstine said. “We want to move forward. If they can have success, we want to enjoy that success with them.”

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Dragon astronauts describe sounds and sensations of return to Earth

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are seen Sunday aboard a helicopter that carried from the SpaceX’s “Go Navigator” recovery ship in the Gulf of Mexico to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they boarded a NASA jet for a flight back to their home base in Houston. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Two days after becoming the first U.S. space fliers splash down in the sea in more than 45 years, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on Tuesday described their fiery ride back to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to cap a “flawless” test flight, setting the stage for operational flights beginning later this year.

Riding in their commercial Crew Dragon spacecraft, which they named Endeavour, the astronauts parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico Sunday after plunging through Earth’s atmosphere on a return trip from the International Space Station.

“I personally expected there to be certainly — not issues with the vehicle — but some challenges, some things that were maybe not quite what we expected,” said Hurley, the Crew Dragon’s spacecraft commander, and a veteran of two prior space shuttle flights. “I mean, even on our shuttle flights we had things that happened … something that you certainly wouldn’t have expected in a real flight.

“My credit once again is to the folks at SpaceX, the production folks, the people that put Endeavour together, and certainly our training folks,” Hurley said. “The mission went just like the simulators. Honestly, from start to finish, all the way, there were really no surprises.”

Hurley and Behnken launched May 30 on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, becoming the first astronauts to launch into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle nearly a decade ago. The next day, the duo docked with the space station to join commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to finish a multi-year effort to upgrade batteries on the space station’s solar power truss. Hurley assisted with operating the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm, and both Dragon astronauts helped perform maintenance, scientific experiments and other tasks during their two-month stint on the orbiting research lab.

But the prime objective of Hurley and Behnken’s mission — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — was to verify the performance and capabilities of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. They were the first astronauts to fly into space on a Crew Dragon, following the unpiloted Demo-1 test flight to the space station in March 2019.

The final major task for the Crew Dragon Endeavour spaceship was the return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken floated into the capsule Saturday, and the ship autonomously detached from the space station. A series of maneuvers using the Dragon’s Draco thrusters steered the capsule a safe distance from the station and lined up with the targeted recovery zone in the Gulf of Mexico roughly 34 miles (54 kilometers) off the coast near Pensacola, Florida.

A final 11-minute deorbit burn allowed the Crew Dragon to drop back into the atmosphere. A thermal shield protected the capsule and the astronauts inside from the scorching heat of re-entry, and temperatures outside the spacecraft were expected to reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius).

As expected, a sheath of plasma around the spacecraft blocked communications for several minutes between the astronauts and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. Mission control regained contact with the crew moments before the capsule deployed two drogue parachutes to stabilize its descent through the atmosphere, then unfurled four large orange and white main chutes to slow the capsule to about 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) for splashdown.

Hurley and Behnken were the first U.S. astronauts to return to Earth for a water landing since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975.

The Crew Dragon’s return to Earth “was more than what Doug and I expected,” said Behnken, who served as the spacecraft’s pilot.

“As we kind of descended through the atmosphere, I personally was surprised at just how quickly the events all transpired,” Behnken told reporters Tuesday. “It seemed just like a couple minutes later after the (deorbit) burn was complete, we could look out the windows and see the clouds rushing by at a much accelerated rate.”

“Once we descended a little bit into the atmosphere, Dragon really came alive,” Behnken said. “It started to fire thrusters and keep us pointed in the appropriate direction. The atmosphere starts to make noise. You can hear that rumble outside the vehicle, and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel that little bit of shimmy in your body. And our bodies were much better attuned to the environment, so we could feel those small rolls, pitches, and yaws. All those little motions were things we could pick up on inside the vehicle.”

It took just 12 minutes from the time that the Crew Dragon encountered the uppermost reaches of the discernible atmosphere until splashdown. NASA’s winged space shuttles made a more gradual descent, taking roughly 30 minutes from the start of re-entry until touchdown on a runway.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday with two NASA astronauts on-board. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“As we descended, through the atmosphere, the thrusters were firing almost continuously” Behnken said. “I did record some audio of it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise. It just continues to gain magnitude as you descend down through the atmosphere. I think we both really, really noticed that aspect of things.”

Behnken, a 50-year-old veteran of two space shuttle missions, also described what the crew felt when the Crew Dragon’s trunk section jettisoned just before the deorbit burn, along with the sensations inside the spaceship when mortars fired to deploy the parachutes.

“All the separation events, from the trunk separation through the parachute firings were very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat — just a crack, and then you get some sort of a motion associated with that,” Behnken said.

He said that feeling was “pretty light for the trunk separation, but with the parachutes it was a pretty significant jolt, and a couple of jolts as you go through dis-reefing (expansion) of the parachutes as well.”

Behnken said he quoted to Hurley during the re-entry a humorous scene from the 1985 comedy film Spies Like Us, where Chevy Chase asks Dan Aykroyd if he wants some coffee after training in a spinning centrifuge.

“I took a line from an old movie that Doug and I were both familiar with at one point,” he said. “Under the G-load of about 4.2 Gs, I said, ‘Want to get some coffee,’ much like we’d seen in an old movie that we had watched because that was really the feeling that we had. That’s the best way to describe if you’ve seen an old movie that happened to have some guys who’d been in a centrifuge. That’s what we felt like.”

The Crew Dragon capsule is equipped with an altimeter to estimate the ship’s altitude using GPS navigation data, and the astronauts were watching the display during the final descent under the parachutes.

“It’s not super-accurate everywhere that you’re located, so we got below zero for our altitude on that indicator, which was a little bit surprising, and then we felt the splash and we saw it splash up over the windows. It was just a great relief, I think, for both of us at that point,” Behnken said.

SpaceX provided audio recordings from the Crew Dragon’s first orbital test flight to help prepare Hurley and Behnken for the ride during launch and re-entry. Behnken said that helped the astronauts know what to expect as the rode the Crew Dragon for the first time.

“We were really comfortable coming through the atmosphere even though it felt like we were inside of an animal,” Behnken said.

He said it was difficult to see out the windows, which are located near the astronauts’ feet, during the period of entry with the highest G-loads. Instead, the astronauts focused on their touchscreen displays.

The thermal control system inside the capsule was designed to keep the temperature below 85 degrees Fahrenheit, or 29 degrees Celsius, as temperatures reached their hottest outside the spacecraft during entry.

“I do feel like I felt some warming of the capsule on the inside,” Behnken said.

Behnken offered a similarly vivid account of the ride into orbit on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The astronauts were the first people to rocket into space on a Falcon 9.

By the time the capsule was through the hottest part of re-entry and the G-forces subsided, the capsule’s windows were blackened from the ordeal. Scorch marks were also visible on the outer skin of the crew capsule, and those were anticipated by SpaceX and NASA.

“You can see from just an overall view of the capsule that re-entry is a pretty demanding environment, with the different scorches on the vehicle, and the windows were not spared any of that,” Hurley said. “To look out the windows, you could basically tell that it was daylight but very little else.”

Hurley said the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft was “rock solid” during the descent back to Earth.

“Personally, I expected the entry to diverge somewhat from what we saw in the simulation,” Hurley said. “What I mean by that is as the capsule gets into the thicker atmosphere … just prior to the drogues (parachutes) with Dragon, I expected there to be some divergence in attitude control because it’s a real tough problem for the ship as it gets into thicker air to maintain perfect attitude control.”

He expected the vehicle might command the drogue parachutes to deploy a bit early to help stabilize its attitude, or orientation. That wasn’t required Sunday.

“The vehicle was rock solid right up until the nominal drogue deploy altitude,” Hurley said. “You could feel it, you felt the decel (deceleration), you knew the drogues both worked, and then it was the same of the mains. We felt the different stages of dis-reef, and then right to the impact in the water … We kind of had a feeling that it would not be as much (of an impact) as a (Russian) Soyuz landing as it was described to us, but it was going to be a pretty firm splashdown, and then even how we bobbed in the water, and how the vehicle sat in the water.”

By all accounts, the Crew Dragon aced the test flight. NASA expects to convene a review in late August or early September to formally certify the Crew Dragon for operational crew rotation flights to and from the space station.

Three NASA astronauts and a Japanese astronaut are training for the first operational Crew Dragon mission, known as Crew-1, for launch on a six-month expedition to the space station as soon as late September. Sources said the late September launch schedule is somewhat optimistic, and there’s a chance SpaceX’s Crew-1 launch might be delayed until after the launch of the next Russian Soyuz crew capsule, which is set for Oct. 14.

“So my compliments to SpaceX and the commercial crew program. The vehicle performed exactly how it was supposed to, and you feel really good about Crew-1, and what they should expect and what they should see when they fly their mission,” Hurley said.

For now, NASA and SpaceX officials say they remain hopeful for a Crew-1 launch before the end of next month.

After splashdown, the crew waited for SpaceX’s recovery team to arrive at the capsule and hoist it onto a recovery vessel. Once on-board the boat, the astronauts waited the SpaceX team to ensure there were no toxic vapors leaking from the capsule’s propulsion system, then technicians and medical personnel opened the hatch to help Hurley and Behnken out of the spacecraft.

Hurley said the astronauts took some time after splashdown to test out a satellite phone they had on-board. If they had landed off course well away from SpaceX’s recovery team, they could have used the phone to call rescue forces.

The astronauts first tried calling SpaceX mission control in California.

“When we called … they said standby,” Hurley said. “So we decided we would exercise our judgment and use our phone to call some other folks.”

Hurley joked Sunday night that the astronauts were “making prank satellite phone calls to whoever we could get ahold of, which was kind of fun.”

They called NASA’s flight director and their wives — both veteran astronauts — at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

‘”Hi, this is Bob and Doug. We’re in the ocean.'”

“This was a great chance to reassure them that we were in the water, we were ok, we were feeling good,” Hurley said. “And at that point, we were still waiting on SpaceX, so we just decided to call a few other people that we knew their phone numbers.”

After getting out of the SpaceX capsule, getting out of their pressure suits and completing initial medical checks, the astronauts rode in a helicopter from SpaceX’s recovery vessel to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they got on a NASA jet for the trip back to their home base in Houston to be reunited with their families.

Their first meal back on Earth? A pizza.

Amid an exercise protocol to help readapt to Earth’s gravity, the astronauts said they are looking forward to spending time with their families. The astronauts began training for the mission in 2015.

“There’s a lot of stuff to do in the next few weeks,” Hurley said. “We’re hoping at some point to take some time off and share some more time with our families since they were the ones that really had to sacrifice over the last five years.”

The astronauts said their experience flying the Crew Dragon gives them confidence the spacecraft is ready for regular crew rotation flights, pending analysis of all the data from the Demo-2 mission.

“They do need to look at the data from our entry,” Behnken said. “It’s not just the end users’ anecdotes of how well it performed. They will do a very thorough review, both on the SpaceX side and the NASA side, to make sure that they’re comfortable. But from a crew perspective, I think it’s definitely ready to go.

“There are things that could be improved … to make things a little bit more comfortable, or a little bit more efficient inside the vehicle for those crews. But from a crew perspective, I think we’re perfectly comfortable that Crew-1 is ready when they finish the engineering and analysis associated with certification,” Behnken said.

Hurley added that the extension of the Demo-2 mission’s duration from several days to two months also offered a chance of engineers to gather more data on the capsule’s performance, increasing confidence that the spacecraft will be ready for the roughly-six Crew-1 mission beginning later this year.

“There’s a certification process that Endeavour hasn’t completed yet, and it will likely be weeks,” Hurley said. “From my experience of flying fighters and testing fighters … there’s a lot of scrutiny on a first light, and there’s a lot of work that goes into a first flight, but you can’t let your guard down, and you’ve got to take a look at the data, you’ve got to listen to the hardware, and it’s probably gonna take a few flights.

“We certainly did our best, and I think the teams did their best to script this flight to be a full-up test flight, but there are certainly things on Dragon that could be tested more,” Hurley said.

Behnken’s wife is astronaut Megan McArthur. NASA announced last week she will be the pilot on the Crew-2 mission, which is slated launch in the spring of 2021 and will use the same reusable Crew Dragon spaceship flown by Hurley and Behnken on the Demo-2 test flight.

“For me, I think in the short term I transition into a support role,” Behnken said Tuesday. “I’ll definitely be focused on making sure that her mission is as successful as possible and supporting her just as she did for me over the last five years with the uncertainty in our launch dates and the uncertainty in our return dates.

“It’s definitely her turn to focus on getting her mission, while I take care of the things that need to be taken care of for our home life,” said Behnken, an Air Force colonel and flight test engineer.

Throughout their flight, Hurley and Behnken shared images on Twitter of daily life on the International Space Station and spectacular snapshots of planet Earth, showing views of cities, mountain ranges, oceans and tropical cyclones.

“The perspective that you have from low Earth orbit of our planet is just one of just complete awe, said Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel and fighter pilot. “First of all, of how beautiful the planet is, that there are no borders that you can see from space that the atmosphere is so thin.

“The United States, and the world, has been dealing with so much chaos and drama, and the pandemic, and all the things that have been going on in the world,” Hurley said. If it were me, it would make me feel better to see these pictures form space, so we just felt like it was a way to have folks maybe have a distraction for awhile, and also to appreciate the planet that we’ve been given.”

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Astronauts back on Earth after ‘extraordinary’ Dragon test flight

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday with two NASA astronauts on-board. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Returning home after a 64-day test flight, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken blazed through Earth’s atmosphere and parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Sunday, a final major step before NASA formally certifies the crew capsule for operational missions to the International Space Station.

The successful homecoming for Hurley and Behnken signaled a turning point in NASA’s commercial crew program, which fostered public-private partnerships with U.S. companies to design, develop and fly new human-rated space taxis after the retirement of the space shuttle.

The astronauts launched inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship May 30, when they rode a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was the first time a crew rocketed into orbit from U.S. soil since the last space shuttle flight in 2011.

With Sunday’s splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, NASA is on the verge of certifying the Crew Dragon spacecraft for regular trips to and from the space station. That will allow the space agency to end its reliance on Russia for crew transportation.

“This has been quite an odyssey the last, five, seven, eight years — five years since Bob and I started working on this program,” Hurley said after Sunday’s return. “And to be where we are now, (with) the first crewed flight of Dragon, is just unbelievable.”

Not only was Sunday’s splashdown a major milestone for NASA, it also made history in the realm of commercial spaceflight. The Crew Dragon became the first privately-owned spacecraft to carry a crew into orbit and return them safely to Earth.

“I do think what this heralds really is fundamentally a new era in spaceflight, a new era in space exploration,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, in remarks Sunday evening in Houston to welcome home Hurley and Behnken. “We’re going to go to the moon. We’re going to have a base on the moon. We’re going to send people to Mars, and make life multi-planetary.”

After detaching from the International Space Station on Saturday night, the Dragon spacecraft carrying Hurley and Behnken lined up for a southwest-to-northeast approach to a splashdown zone in the Gulf around 34 miles (54 kilometers) off the Florida coast near Pensacola.

The capsule jettisoned its unpressurized trunk section — with the ship’s solar panels and thermal control radiator — just before firing a set of Draco rocket jets at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT) for a deorbit burn lasting more than 11 minutes.

The braking burn changed the capsule’s velocity enough to allow Earth’s gravity to pull the spacecraft back into the atmosphere, which did the rest of the work to slow Dragon’s speed from 17,500 mph (28,000 kilometers per hour) to just 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) for splashdown.

The spacecraft closed its nose cone a few minutes later, then encountered the uppermost fringes of the discernible atmosphere at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT).

Wearing their white SpaceX-made flame-resistant pressure suits, the astronauts experienced up to 4Gs during entry. The capsule flew on autopilot, pointing its blunt end into the airflow as temperatures outside the spacecraft rose up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (over 1,900 degrees Celsius).

A plasma sheath enshrouded the capsule for several minutes, causing an expected communication blackout between the Crew Dragon — which Hurley and Behnken named “Endeavour” — and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Ground teams restored the voice link with the Dragon astronauts, and a pair of drogue parachutes unfurled to stabilize the capsule. Four orange and white main parachutes deployed at an altitude of about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) to slow the capsule’s descent in the last few minutes before splashdown.

The 13-foot-wide (4-meter), 16-foot-tall (5-meter) capsule splashed down at 2:48 p.m. EDT (1848 GMT).

“Endeavour, on behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth,” radioed SpaceX’s spacecraft communicator Mike Heiman. “Thanks for flying SpaceX.”

“It was truly our honor and privilege to fly the (first) flight of the Crew Dragon Endeavour,” Hurley replied moments after splashdown. “Congratulations to everybody at SpaceX.”

The splashdown near Pensacola was the first time U.S. astronauts returned from a space mission with a splashdown at sea since 1975, when the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission came back to Earth. It was also the first splashdown of astronauts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurley and Behnken’s mission — known as Demo-2, or DM-2 — lasted 64 days since they blasted off from Florida’s Space Coast on May 30.

After reaching the space station May 31, the astronauts joined the Expedition 63 led by commander Chris Cassidy.

Cassidy and his two Russian crewmates — Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — will remain aboard the space station until October, when they will return to a landing in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Three fresh crew members will launch to the space station Oct. 14 on a new Soyuz spaceship.

During their two-month stay, Hurley and Behnken assisted Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner with space station duties, performing experiments and maintenance. Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to replace batteries on the space station’s solar power modules.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after splashdown Sunday. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A SpaceX recovery vessel named “Go Navigator” was on station in the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve the Crew Dragon spaceship after it splashed down.

Two “fast boats” with recovery team members approached the capsule. After ensuring the spacecraft was safe, the larger recovery boat took position near the Dragon and hoisted the capsule out of the water using a lifting frame.

Once the Dragon was on the deck of Go Navigator, SpaceX technicians detected elevated levels of nitrogen tetroxide outside the spacecraft. The compound is used as an oxidizer for the spacecraft’s maneuvering thrusters, and is highly toxic.

The recovery team purged part of the spacecraft to rid it of the toxic contaminants before opening the hath and helping Hurley and Behnken out of the capsule for initial medical checks.

SpaceX said the recovery ship had around 44 people on-board, including SpaceX and NASA officials, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. Spacecraft technicians were aboard to recover and secure the Dragon capsule.

Hurley and Behnken later rode a helicopter to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they boarded a NASA aircraft for the flight back to their home base in Houston.

The astronauts came back to Earth with around 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of cargo, including frozen experiment specimens, personal gear, and a U.S. flag left on the space station by the final space shuttle crew in 2011.

Hurley was the pilot on the final space shuttle flight.

The flag also flew on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, in 1981. The final shuttle crew left it on the space station to be returned by the next astronauts to fly to the research lab on a U.S. spacecraft.

In the end, SpaceX won the “capture the flag” competition on the high frontier.

NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to develop and fly new U.S.-built commercial crew capsules to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, following several years of preliminary design work.

SpaceX, founded by Musk 18 years ago, launched a successful unpiloted Crew Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in March 2019, then overcame a setback during ground testing of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system last year. After redesigning part of the abort system, and verifying new modifications to the capsule’s parachutes, SpaceX launched the first Crew Dragon mission with astronauts May 30.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule launched into orbit for its first unpiloted test flight last December, but it ran into software problems that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the space station. Boeing recovered the spacecraft with a successful landing in New Mexico, but officials plan to re-fly the uncrewed demonstration mission later this year before clearing the Starliner to carry astronauts for the first time in 2021.

SpaceX has signed contracts with NASA on the Crew Dragon program valued at more than $3 billion. Boeing has a similar set of agreements with NASA worth more than $5 billion for the Starliner program.

Both companies have contributed undisclosed sums to the Crew Dragon and Starliner programs from their own corporate funds.

NASA says contracting out human spaceflight missions to low Earth orbit will reduce costs, freeing limited government funding for astronaut journeys to the moon, and eventually Mars.

With the Crew Dragon’s first round-trip space mission with astronauts in the books, SpaceX and NASA will analyze data from the Demo-2 test flight before formally certifying the commercial capsule for operational crew rotation launches.

The first such regular crew rotation flight, named Crew-1, is scheduled for launch this fall on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. Four astronauts are assigned to the Crew-1 flight.

“We’ll do a few things to get ready for certification in a few different areas,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “One, we’ll review all the telemetry, all the data from the Dragon. We’ve done that for the whole flight to date. We’ll do that now for undocking all the way through splashdown and recovery.

“We do it jointly with SpaceX,” said Stich, a former NASA flight director. “We have our NASA team and SpaceX working together and going through all the data for each of the various systems — life support, propulsion, and so forth. So we’ll go through all that data to make sure that there’s nothing anomalous there.

Second, we’ll look at the parachutes,” Stich said. “The parachutes are a very important system on the vehicle. SpaceX was doing a great job of recovering their chutes today, so we’ll take those back and analyze those, look at it, just to see if they performed well.”

The Dragon capsule that flew Hurley and Behnken into space will fly again on the Crew-2 mission next year. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said Sunday the company’s new Dragon spacecraft design — which comes in crew and cargo variants — should be capable of five to 10 flights.

“One of the benefits of reuse, I would say, is the fact that we’ll take some of the vehicle apart,” Stich said. “The nose cone will come off, the heat shield comes off, we’ll start to inspect part of the spacecraft, and sometimes we can learn things from that.

“So we’ll do that inspection, and then we’ll put all that together and head into the certification review, probably toward the end of this month or early next month.”

Subsequent Crew Dragon missions to the space station will also launch with up to four passengers, and the spaceship — once certified after Demo-2’s return — will be capable of missions lasting up to 210 days.

While SpaceX’s core market for crew missions is with NASA and government astronauts, the company has its eyes set on flying commercial passengers. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced agreements with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, two companies that are arranging orbital expeditions with space tourists, paying passengers, and other would-be space fliers in the private sector.

One future Crew Dragon passenger could be Tom Cruise, who is planning to film a movie in orbit through a partnership with SpaceX, according to the entertainment website Deadline.

“This was an extraordinary mission, an extraordinary day for NASA, for SpaceX, and frankly for Americans and anyone interested in spaceflight,” Shotwell said Sunday, referring to the conclusion of the Demo-2 test flight. “This is really just the beginning. We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, and on to the moon, and ultimately on to Mars.”

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Hurley, Behnken heading home on final leg of Crew Dragon test flight

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken undocked from the International Space Station Saturday aboard their Crew Dragon capsule “Endeavour,” heading for a parachute-assisted splashdown Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico to wrap up a 64-day test flight of SpaceX’s commercial human-rated spaceship.

With favorable wind and sea conditions expected in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, mission control gave the go-ahead for Hurley and Behnken to board their Crew Dragon spacecraft and close hatches between the capsule and the space station.

After a series of leak checks, an undocking command at 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT) Saturday commenced a series of automated steps to depart the station. Power umbilicals detached inside the docking mechanism, then 12 hooks opened before the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft fired thrusters in a pair of short pulses to boost itself away from the research complex at 7:35 p.m. EDT (2335 GMT).

Wearing custom-made SpaceX-built pressure suits, Hurley and Behnken monitored the departure on touchscreen displays inside their Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, commander of the station’s Expedition 63 crew, rang the “ship’s bell” on the research complex and ceremoniously announced the Dragon’s undocking.

Cassidy and his two Russian crewmates — Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — will remain aboard the space station until October, when they will return to a landing in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Three fresh crew members will launch to the space station Oct. 14 on a new Soyuz spaceship.

During their two-month stay, Hurley and Behnken assisted Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner with space station duties, performing experiments and maintenance. Behnken joined Cassidy on four spacewalks in June and July to replace batteries on the space station’s solar power modules.

“Chris, we just can’t thank you enough,” Hurley said in a radio exchange with Cassidy shortly after undocking. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to be part of Expedition 63 with you, Anatoly and Ivan. It’s been a great two months and we appreciate all you’ve done as a crew to help us prove out Dragon on its maiden flight.”

Hurley also thanked NASA mission controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and SpaceX teams in Hawthorne, California, for their support.

“We look forward to splashdown tomorrow,” Hurley said. “Also like to wish you great success on the rest of your expedition and a safe flight home in the fall. Take care, friend.”

“Bob and Doug, wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments,” Cassidy replied. “It’s been a real pleasure. It’s been an honor to serve with you. Safe travels and have a successful landing. Endeavour’s a great ship. Godspeed.”

A series of rocket burns maneuvered the crew capsule a safe distance away from the space station, and the astronauts planned to begin an eight-hour sleep period at 11:40 p.m. EDT (0340 GMT).

Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner tweeted this photo Saturday of Crew Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken placing their mission patch on the space station docking port where the Dragon is attached. Credit: Ivan Vagner/Roscosmos

Hurley and Behnken will close out their 64-day test flight — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — Sunday with a braking burn to drop out of orbit and enter the atmosphere, targeting a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida.

“Our mission isn’t over,” Hurley said Saturday before undocking. “The DM-2 test flight is, in some ways, just two-thirds complete. We did the ascent, rendezvous and the docking. We completed our docked objectives, and now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase.”

“The hardest part was getting us launched, but the most important part is bringing us home,” Behnken said.

The astronauts are scheduled to wake up at 7:40 a.m. EDT (1140 GMT) Sunday to begin preparations for their return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken will pack bags and ready the spaceship’s cabin for entry. They will also drink fluids in a process known as “fluid loading” aimed at easing their adaptation to Earth’s gravity after two months in orbit.

Assuming a final assessment of weather and sea conditions look favorable in the recovery zone near Pensacola, the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft — flying on autopilot — will jettison its unpressurized trunk section at 1:51 p.m. EDT (1751 GMT). The trunk is attached to the rear of the Dragon’s crew module, and contains the ship’s power-generating solar panels and radiators used to shed the spacecraft’s internal heat into space.

The trunk will remain in a relatively low orbit and will naturally fall back into the atmosphere and burn up.

Meanwhile, the Dragon crew module will maneuver into the proper orientation for a deorbit burn using the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters. The braking maneuver will begin at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT) and last more than 11 minutes, slowing the ship’s velocity by nearly 168 mph, or 75 meters per second.

That change in velocity will allow Earth’s gravity to pull the spacecraft back into the atmosphere, which will do most of the rest of the work to slow Dragon’s speed for splashdown.

The spacecraft will close its forward nose cone at 2:11 p.m. EDT (1811 GMT) before it plunges into the discernible atmosphere at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT), moving at some 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour).

Hurley and Behnken will be wearing their SpaceX-made flame-resistant pressure suits during entry, the same garments they wore during their launch May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Diagram of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

Flying with its blunt end facing the brunt of the airflow, the spacecraft’s heat shield will encounter temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius) as it dives into the atmosphere.

The build-up of super-heated around the capsule is expected to interrupt communications with the crew for about six minutes during entry. Engineers expect to restore communications with the astronauts once Dragon Endeavour comes out of the hottest part of entry at around 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT).

Drogue parachutes will release from the top of the capsule at 2:44 p.m. EDT (1844 GMT), followed by the deployment of four orange and white main parachutes about a minute later.

The drogue chutes will deploy when Dragon Endeavour is descending through about 18,000 feet, or 5,500 meters, when the capsule is moving at approximately 350 mph, or more than 550 kilometers per hour. The four main chutes come out at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, or 1,800 meters, and at a velocity of around 119 mph, or 191 kilometers per hour.

The parachutes will slow the capsule’s speed for a gentle splashdown at 2:48 p.m. EDT (1848 GMT) in the Gulf of Mexico, targeting a location just south of the Alabama-Florida border.

Going into Sunday’s entry and splashdown, mission control identified a backup recovery site in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Florida. SpaceX and NASA have seven Crew Dragon splashdown sites available in total — four in the Gulf and three in the Atlantic — but Tropical Storm Isaias is forecast to move near the mission’s recovery zones off Florida’s East Coast on Sunday.

If weather conditions deteriorate in the Gulf of Mexico, mission control could wave-off Sunday’s return opportunities. NASA officials said the astronauts have food, water and other supplies for at least three days on the Crew Dragon after the undocking Saturday night from the space station.

A SpaceX recovery vessel named “Go Navigator” will be on station in the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve the Crew Dragon spaceship after it splashes down.

Two “fast boats” will deploy from Go Navigator and approach the capsule, which measures around 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and 16 feet (5 meters). After ensuring the spacecraft is safe, the larger recovery boat will take position near the Dragon and hoist the capsule out of the water using a lifting frame.

Once in the Dragon is on the deck of Go Navigator, Hurley and Behnken will disembark the capsule and undergo medical checks.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said the recovery ship will have around 44 people on-board, including SpaceX and NASA officials, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. Spacecraft technicians will also be aboard to recover and secure the Dragon capsule.

After an initial health assessment, Hurley and Behnken will ride a helicopter to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where they will board a NASA aircraft for the flight back to their home base in Houston.

SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” Crew Dragon recovery ship. Credit: SpaceX

The astronauts are coming back to Earth with around 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of cargo, including frozen experiment specimens, personal gear, and a U.S. flag left on the space station by the final space shuttle crew in 2011.

Hurley was the pilot on the final space shuttle flight.

The flag also flew on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, in 1981. The final shuttle crew left it on the space station to be returned by the next astronauts to fly to the research lab on a U.S. spacecraft.

In the end, SpaceX won the “capture the flag” competition on the high frontier.

NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to develop and fly new U.S.-built commercial crew capsules to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, following several years of preliminary design work.

SpaceX launched a successful unpiloted Crew Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in March 2019, then overcame a setback during ground testing of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system last year. After redesigning part of the abort system, and verifying new modifications to the capsule’s parachutes, SpaceX launched the first Crew Dragon mission with astronauts May 30.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule launched into orbit for its first unpiloted test flight last December, but it ran into software problems that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the space station. Boeing recovered the spacecraft with a successful landing in New Mexico, but officials plan to re-fly the uncrewed demonstration mission later this year before clearing the Starliner to carry astronauts for the first time in 2021.

With the Crew Dragon on the cusp of completing its first round-trip space mission with astronauts, SpaceX and NASA will analyze data from the Demo-2 test flight before formally certifying the commercial capsule for operational crew rotation launches.

The first such regular crew rotation flight, named Crew-1, is scheduled for launch this fall on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. Four astronauts are assigned to the Crew-1 flight, and NASA last week announced the crew assignments for the Crew-2 mission in the spring of 2021, the second operational Crew Dragon mission to the space station.

Subsequent Crew Dragon missions to the space station will also launch with up to four passengers, and the spaceship — once certified after Demo-2’s return — will be capable of missions lasting up to 210 days.

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Live coverage: Dragon crew ready to head home

Live coverage of the undocking, re-entry and splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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Crew Dragon astronauts pack up for return to Earth

Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner tweeted this photo Saturday of Crew Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken placing their mission patch on the space station docking port where the Dragon is attached. Credit: Ivan Vagner/Roscosmos

Crew Dragon astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken thanked their space station crewmates for a productive two-month visit, readied their SpaceX capsule for departure and stood by for a final “go” from flight controllers to undock Saturday night, setting up a Gulf of Mexico splashdown Sunday afternoon.

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go,” Behnken tweeted.

It will be the first splashdown for U.S. astronauts in 45 years and the first entry, descent and landing of a piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of the final steps before NASA can certify the SpaceX ferry ships for operational six-month flights to the space station.

“We’re about to embark on the the final portion of the journey,” Behnken said in a brief departure ceremony Saturday morning. “The hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part is bringing us home.”

“I look forward to the test objectives of not only separating from the International Space Station smoothly, but then coming down to a nice splashdown off the Florida coast to come full circle with bringing that capability to launch astronauts again to the United States.”

With Hurricane Isaias threatening Florida’s East Coast, effectively ruling out a splashdown off the coast from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral, NASA and SpaceX mission managers focused on four landing sites in the Gulf located off shore near Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa.

This map shows the Crew Dragon’s seven landing zones. Credit: NASA

With good weather expected at more than one of the Gulf sites, Hurley and Behnken looked forward to undocking around 7:30 p.m. Leaving the station behind, the astronauts plan to monitor a series of computer-orchestrated thruster firings to fine-tune their orbit before going to bed around 12:30 a.m. Sunday.

After a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call, the astronauts will work through a detailed pre-entry checklist before the Crew Dragon jettison’s its no-longer-needed trunk section at 1:46 p.m., exposing the capsule’s protective heat shield.

Then, starting at 1:51 p.m., the Crew Dragon’s forward thrusters are scheduled to fire for nearly 10 minutes, slowing the craft by about 105 mph, just enough to drop the far side of its orbit deep into the atmosphere.

Twenty-six minutes later, approaching the Gulf of Mexico from the southwest, the Crew Dragon is expected to plunge back into the discernible atmosphere, quickly slowing down as the heat shield endures temperatures higher than 3,000 degrees. Small drogue parachutes will then stabilize the capsule before four main parachutes unfurl at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.

Splashdown is expected at 2:42 p.m. The SpaceX recovery ship “Go Navigator” will be stationed nearby carrying initial responders with “fast boats” to quickly reach the spacecraft, medical personnel and support crews. Within the hour, they are expected to stabilize and “safe” the capsule, haul it on board, open the side hatch and help Hurley and Behnken out as they begin re-adjusting to gravity after two months in space.

Credit: SpaceX

Both astronauts said they expect a bit of nausea and possibly vomiting as they bob about in the capsule awaiting recovery. During an earlier interview aboard the station, Hurley joked, “there’s a pretty good likelihood that we may see breakfast twice on that particular day.”

In any case, after initial medical checks aboard the Go Navigator, the astronauts will be flown by helicopter to a nearby airport where a NASA jet will be waiting to fly them back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for debriefing and reunions with family members.

Since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and partner agency astronauts to and from the station at some $80 million per seat.

The Crew Dragon and, eventually, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 capsules are intended to end that sole reliance on Russia while opening up low-Earth orbit to private-sector development.

SpaceX launched and recovered an unpiloted Crew Dragon capsule last year and carried out a dramatic in-flight abort, again unpiloted, earlier this year. That cleared the way for Hurley and Behnken to blast off on the program’s first piloted mission, a test flight known as Demo 2, on May 30.

“The DM-2 test flight is in some ways just two thirds complete,” Hurley said Saturday. “We did the ascent, the rendezvous and the docking, we completed our docked objectives and now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase.”

During the departure ceremony, space station commander Chris Cassidy presented Hurley and Behnken with an American flag the crew of the final shuttle mission left aboard the lab complex in 2011. Hurley was the pilot of shuttle Atlantis for that final flight and “capturing the flag” marked a special moment.

Crew Dragon spacecraft commander Doug Hurley holds the U.S. flag that will return from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

The flag first flew in space aboard Columbia during the first shuttle mission in 1981 and if all goes well, it will be aboard NASA’s Orion capsule during a flight to the moon in the next few years.

“This flag has spent some time up here, on the order of nine years since we dropped it off on STS-135,” Hurley said. “So very proud to return this flag home and see what’s next for it on its journey to the moon.”

Also coming home: “Tremor,” the toy dinosaur that served as an ever-present zero-gravity indicator during the crew’s stay aboard the station. It was given to them by their sons, six-year-old Theo Behnken and 10-year-old Jack Hurley.

“My son and Doug’s son are really excited, not only to get their fathers back, but to get our apatosaurus, our zero-G indicator that they nominated to go with us on this historic mission,” Behnken said. “For Jack and Theo: Tremor, the apatosaurus, is headed home soon and he’ll be with your dads.”

Both men are married to astronauts. Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is retired from the astronaut corps, but Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is in training to fly to the space station next year aboard the same Crew Dragon bringing her husband home Sunday.