Bob and Doug Back on Earth

Bob and Doug Back on Earth

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are back on Earth, completing a successful crewed flight test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.  It is the last test towards certifying the system for routine operational missions to and from the International Space Station, which are expected to begin in September.

Dodging a hurricane in the Atlantic, they splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola. This is the first crewed spacecraft to make a water landing since the end of the Apollo program, but all went well. SpaceX hoisted the spacecraft — with the astronauts still inside — aboard its recovery ship GO Navigator where the hatch was opened to allow them to disembark.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in their pressure suits inside the Crew Dragon Endeavour prior to reentry. August 2, 2020. Screengrab

Reentry went like clockwork, with splashdown at 2:54 pm ET in almost perfect weather conditions, with winds about 2 knots and waves one foot with a period of 6 seconds.

Splashdown of Crew Dragon Endeavour (center). August 2, 2020. One of two SpaceX “fast boats” can be seen in the foreground headed to the capsule. Credit: NASA

SpaceX released a video of the descent and splashdown on August 3.

Less than 30 minutes after splashdown, Endeavour and its crew were lifted out of the water and onto GO Navigator.

Crew Dragon Endeavour being hoisted aboard the recovery ship GO Navigator in the Gulf of Mexico with astronauts Doug Hurley and and Bob Behnken inside. August 2, 2020. Screengrab.


Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) after the hatch to their Crew Dragon Endeavour was opened aboard GO Navigator. Credit: NASA

The crew was helicoptered to shore, flown back to Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, and reunited with their families.

During a post-splashdown press conference NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, other NASA officials and the four astronauts who will fly the first operational mission in September, raved about how smoothly the mission went.

Only two problems cropped up during splashdown. The first was technical. The recovery team detected residual nitrogen tetraoxide vapors from Crew Dragon’s engines, which are toxic. Though the level was low, SpaceX decided to purge the system before opening the hatch to extract the crew, delaying it for about half an hour. Shotwell said they could have removed the crew safely, but they wanted to be extra sure and will investigate how to resolve this for future missions.

The second was of a very different nature. The Coast Guard cleared a 10 nautical mile area around the splashdown point, but once the spacecraft was down, private boaters started surrounding the recovery area to see what was happening.

NASA photo showing a large number of recreational boaters surrounding Crew Dragon after splashdown. August 2, 2020.

It was a troubling development especially considering the toxic fumes in the area. They were quickly shooed back to a safe distance, but Bridenstine and Shotwell vowed to do a better job next time of securing splashdown sites. The Coast Guard issued a statement explaining its authority to establish safety zones applies only within 12 nautical miles from shore and this was outside that area, so it could only have a presence to discourage boaters, but they did not comply.  It will conduct a “comprehensive review” with NASA and SpaceX to develop lessons learned.

Crew Dragon was developed through a public-private partnership between NASA and SpaceX where both invested in development and NASA guaranteed to buy a certain amount of services. SpaceX owns the spacecraft.

This flight restores the ability of the United States to launch people into orbit. It has not been able to do that since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. Doug Hurley, the commander of this mission, was the pilot of the final space shuttle flight nine years ago, STS-135.

Since 2011, NASA has had to pay Russia to ferry crews to and from ISS. Now it will pay SpaceX, and Boeing (which is developing its own “commercial crew” system), instead.

The commercial crew program was initiated by President Obama in 2010 as a follow-on to the commercial cargo program started by President George W. Bush. Obama reminded everyone of that today.

Bush had decided in 2004 to terminate the shuttle program in 2010 as soon as construction of the ISS was completed. His decision followed the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy that claimed the lives of seven astronauts.  Instead, he wanted to focus on sending astronauts back to the Moon through the Constellation program, but that meant developing something to replace the shuttle’s ongoing role in the ISS program to deliver cargo and crews.

Then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin came up with the idea to partner with the private sector to develop new cargo systems, which began operating in 2012. Crews would be ferried to ISS on a new NASA rocket, Ares I, with a NASA Orion spacecraft.

Those systems were under development when Obama took office, but he cancelled the Constellation program — both the part to take people back to the Moon and to support the ISS. He agreed to add two more shuttle flights, extending the program into 2011, but instead of NASA developing a new system for crewed missions to ISS, he chose to partner with the private sector for this program instead.

Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation and build a commercial crew capability was very controversial and opposed by key members of Congress from both parties. Today, with the successful completion of this mission, those fights seem long past, yet Bridenstine is having difficulty convincing some in Congress to embrace public-private partnerships for building Human Landing Systems for the Artemis program. The debate about public-private partnerships versus government ownership of key space systems is not over yet.

Bridenstine sounded optimistic that this success will prove that public-private partnerships work. His main theme at the post-splashdown press conference was that commercialization of space, as evidenced by the commercial crew program, will enable the United States to pursue bold exploration missions like Artemis. But he needs Congress to provide NASA with the $25.2 billion requested for FY2021.

The House just passed its bill, keeping the agency level at $22.6 billion instead of the requested 12 percent increase. It is now up to the Senate, but the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), told Politico last week it will be a “challenge.”

Bridenstine pleaded for the money.

“I implore our members of Congress, bipartisan, House and Senate, to please fund the budget request for NASA.  We have proven that if you give us the resources, we can deliver, and our partners can deliver, and this is about all of America.” — Jim Bridenstine

This article has been updated several times.

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