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

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

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

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

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

Closing 186 days in orbit

Crew-6’s return was delayed several days due to Hurricane Idalia moving close to SpaceX’s landing zones near Florida. However, the weather cleared, and the seas calmed enough for NASA and SpaceX officials to give the go-ahead for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle. Strive The spacecraft will leave the space station on Sunday morning.

After retracting from the space station, the Dragon spacecraft and its four-member crew prepared to reenter the atmosphere on Sunday evening. The 13-foot-wide (4-meter) capsule fired its braking rockets and closed its nose cone before falling into the atmosphere, putting on a stunning display in the midnight sky over Florida as it sliced ​​its way across the sky with a cascade of plasma in its wake. .

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

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

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

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

Stephen Clark/Ars Technica

NASA Commander Steve Bowen, pilot Woody Hoiburg, and mission specialists Sultan Al Neyadi of the United Arab Emirates and Andrey Fedyev of Russia appeared in good condition after 186 days in orbit since their launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in March. The crew members are expected to undergo medical examinations and return to their training base in Houston on board a NASA aircraft.

“It was a symbolic return,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of human spaceflight programs. “Dragon is healthy, the parachutes performed as expected, and our recovery teams performed great. Dragon performed great, and the crew seemed to perform great.”

During their six-month journey, Bowen and his colleagues worked on several scientific experiments and performed three spacewalks to support the installation of new solar panels outside the space station. Combining his experience on this mission and three previous space shuttle flights, Bowen now ranks third all-time in total time spent spacewalking, at 65 hours and 57 minutes.

Hoburg has shared his experiences on the space station on social media, and produced insightful videos showing daily life on the ISS. His videos captured the orbital reboot experience, training with the station’s robotic arm, and exercising in microgravity, among other topics.

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

Al Neyadi became the first astronaut from the Arab world to fly a long-term mission in space, representing a leap forward for the rapidly growing UAE space program. Fedyev was the second Russian astronaut to be transported by SpaceX to and from the space station as part of an agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyev, pilot Woody Hoburg, Commander Steve Bowen, and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi after their return to Earth.
Zoom in / Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyev, pilot Woody Hoburg, Commander Steve Bowen, and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi after their return to Earth.

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

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SpaceX is going, not Boeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

So SpaceX is now on the hook for at least 14 NASA crew rotation missions, in addition to the first Crew Dragon test mission with astronauts that SpaceX flew in 2020. SpaceX has also launched three full commercial flights of Crew Dragon — a completely private autonomous mission called Inspiration4. and two short commercial flights to the International Space Station for Axiom Space, bringing the total number of human spaceflight missions launched by SpaceX to 11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground teams will closely examine the propulsion system aboard the Crew Dragon, said Stitch, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew contracts with SpaceX and Boeing. Strive The spacecraft after returning to Earth. Engineers want to know if there are any signs of wear on the thrust valves after an isolation valve got stuck on the last Dragon cargo mission to the space station.

“We want to take a look at those things,” Stitch said. “Of course, this problem was discovered after this vehicle was already in space. So we will take some time to look at this system and return it to its normal state, and the goal is for a Crew-8 flight no later than February.” “.

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

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