Demo-2 Crew On Their Way Home with Flag and Tremor

Demo-2 Crew On Their Way Home with Flag and Tremor

The crew of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission is on their way home after two months in space.  The crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is the last step towards certification of the vehicle for operational flights. As NASA and SpaceX officials often say, the test is not over until “Bob and Doug” — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — are back on terra firma.

Bob and Doug undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) at 7:35 pm EDT to begin a 19-hour trip back to Earth. Crew Dragons are designed to splashdown in the ocean like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Potential splashdown sites are in the Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico on its West Coast. Which one is used depends on weather.  Tomorrow’s splashdown will be near Pensacola.

The astronauts arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on May 31, 2020, a day after launch from Kennedy Space Center, and have spent the last two months working with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy on many tasks from scientific experiments to spacewalks. Cassidy has been on ISS since April with two Russian colleagues, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The three of them will remain aboard ISS until October when their replacements arrive.

ISS has been permanently occupied with crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules for almost 20 years. At first, crews were ferried back and forth on NASA’s space shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. Since the shuttle was terminated in 2011, only Soyuz has been available. NASA has been paying Russia for crew transportation services since then.

NASA has been working with SpaceX and Boeing to build two new U.S. systems — Crew Dragon and Starliner — as public-private partnerships where the government and the companies invest in developing the systems while the government guarantees to buy a certain amount of services. The companies own the vehicles, not the government. NASA simply buys services, as it does from Russia.

Mission control for Crew Dragon is at SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, CA, with NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a backup. JSC is also in control when Dragon is docked to ISS or within its 200 meter “keep out” sphere.

Both companies must demonstrate that their systems are safe for NASA astronauts by conducting an uncrewed flight test and then a crewed flight test. This is the latter for SpaceX.  Boeing’s uncrewed flight test in December 2019 was not a complete success and it decided to fly a second uncrewed flight test before committing to putting astronauts aboard. The schedule is uncertain.

Bob and Doug named their Crew Dragon Endeavour after the space shuttle Endeavour on which each made their first trips into space, which itself was named after the ship of famed British explorer Captain James Cook.

They closed Endeavour’s hatch at 5:36 pm ET this afternoon, beginning their return home.

Earlier today, all five crew members aboard ISS held a farewell ceremony where Cassidy handed over an American flag that was left by the crew of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011. Boeing and SpaceX have been engaged in a “capture the flag” competition to see which company would get there first and bring it back to Earth. As it turns out, Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew, so he has it back again in his own hands.

Aboard the International Space Station, Doug Hurley (right front) accepts flag from Chris Cassidy (center) as Bob Behnken (left front), Ivan Wagner (left rear) and Anatoly Ivanishin (right rear) look on as SpaceX officially “captures the flag.” August 1, 2020. Screengrab

The flag has a history and a future. It flew on the first space shuttle mission, STS-1, and after Bob and Doug return it to Earth tomorrow, it will await its next flight aboard the first mission to return astronauts to the Moon.

Bob and Doug also will be bringing back Tremor the dinosaur, a toy chosen by their 6- and 10-year old sons as a zero-gravity indicator.

Tremor the dinosaur (center) and crewmates aboard the International Space Station before departing for the trip back to Earth. August 1, 2020. Screengrab.

NASA and SpaceX are proceeding with the return despite Hurricane Isaias, which threatens Florida’s East Coast, but the Gulf of Mexico is not expected to be impacted.

Even after undocking, however, there are opportunities to reconsider the weather if the hurricane’s track changes. Crew Dragon is equipped with three days of supplies and splashdown opportunities occur every 48 hours.

The plan, though, is for splashdown at 2:48 pm EDT Sunday, August 2.


This article has been updated.

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