Preparations Continue for Dragon Return to Earth on May 31-UPDATE 2

Preparations Continue for Dragon Return to Earth on May 31-UPDATE 2

UPDATE 2:  Wednesday evening (May 30) NASA said via Twitter that NASA TV coverage would begin an hour earlier, at 2:30 am ET.  SpaceX also is reporting that splashdown will be at 11:44 am ET, a time that was earlier announced by NASA, but is later than what SpaceX indicated earlier today.  Stay tuned to NASA TV or follow @NASA or @SpaceX on Twitter for up to the minute information on Dragon’s whereabouts. 

UPDATE:  NASA added another piece of the timeline this afternoon via its space station website — astronauts will detach Dragon from the Harmony module using Canadarm2 at 4:05 am ET tomorrow (May 31).  A list of the key events that we’ve discerned from NASA and SpaceX sources is available here, but all times are approximate and the best way to keep track is to follow the events as they unfold on NASA TV.

ORIGINAL STORY:  NASA and SpaceX provided more details today about tomorrow’s return to Earth of the Dragon spacecraft, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station (ISS).   Dragon will be released from ISS’s Canadarm2 at approximately 09:35 GMT (5:35 am EDT, 4:35 am CDT) with splashdown in the Pacific five and a half hours later.

SpaceX Mission Manager John Couluris said at a NASA/Space-X press conference this morning that the weather looks excellent in the splashdown area 490 nautical miles (564 statute miles or 907 kilometers) southwest of Los Angeles.    American Marine will perform the recovery operations under contract to SpaceX.   Dragon will be brought by ship to the port of Los Angeles and then flown to McGregor Airport near Waco, TX and SpaceX’s propulsion and structural test facilities.  

The ISS crew loaded Dragon with items to be returned to Earth and SpaceX plans to demonstrate an “early access” ability to return high priority cargo to NASA within 48 hours.  Standard cargo is to be returned within 14 days.   NASA flight director Holly Ridings said that there is no “critical” cargo on this mission since it is a test flight.  The hatch to Dragon was closed this morning.  The hatch to the Harmony module (Node 2) will be closed and the area between the hatches depressurized tomorrow morning.

This Dragon spacecraft will not be reused, Couluris said.   NASA has contracted for new Dragon spacecraft for each of its missions, he said, although Dragons are reusable.   This particular spacecraft “definitely” will be put on display for historical purposes, but other Dragon spacecraft could be refurbished and reflown for other customers.   One version, DragonLab, is capable of two years of autonomous operations in orbit, he added.

Couluris stressed that reentry, splashdown, and recovery operations are challenging and “we are not taking this lightly at all.”  However, even if this final phase was not successful, in his opinion the rendezvous and berthing operations with ISS already make the mission overall a success.

Ridings explained that after Dragon is released from Canadarm2, it will make three engine burns — two short, one long — and move away from station.   That will take 10-11 minutes after which it will be out of the zone of integrated operations and back under SpaceX’s control.   SpaceX will fire the engines again for the deorbit burn.   The recovery team is already enroute to the splashdown point and SpaceX anticipates it will take 2-3 days for the ships to return to port after they get Dragon aboard. 

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