Demo-2 Mission Brings Crewed Launches Back to U.S. Soil

Linda Grimm | September 25, 2020

Linda Grimm | September 25, 2020

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley during a simulation of Crew Dragon rendezvous and docking with the ISS.

 

NASA and SpaceX made history this summer with the successful first manned test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Demo-2 mission marked the first time astronauts launched from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011 and the first time a private company sent astronauts into orbit. The mission was designed to test various components of SpaceX’s human spaceflight operations, from launch pad operations to splashdown and recovery.

For the historic flight’s crew, NASA selected astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Both men were engineers and former test pilots with experience flying the space shuttle, and they spent several years working with SpaceX on Crew Dragon’s design. The men named their spacecraft Endeavour in honor of the first shuttle they had flown.

Behnken and Hurley with their ISS crewmates, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

NASA originally scheduled the launch for May 27 but scrubbed it due to unfavorable weather conditions. Demo-2 blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s storied Launch Complex 39A three days later, at 3:22pm EDT. The spacecraft docked with ISS on the morning of May 31, with Behnken and Hurley coming onboard at 1:22pm EDT. Endeavour flew autonomously through rendezvous and docking, though Behnken and Hurley were monitoring their trajectory and could take manual control of the spacecraft if necessary.

Behnken and Hurley’s ISS crewmates, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, greeted them with a traditional welcome ceremony. “It’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business, and we’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex,” said Hurley. Both astronauts commented on how well the flight had gone so far, with Behnken calling Endeavour “a slick vehicle” and Hurley adding that they “couldn’t be happier about the performance.”

Behnken and Hurley were on the ISS for 62 days, spending more than 100 hours conducting or assisting with experiments and demonstrations. They contributed new photos to the Crew Earth Observations study, which is using images taken from the ISS to understand how Earth is changing over time. They installed a new European Drawer Rack Mark 2 to give crews a “flexible experiment facility” that will support a variety of demonstrations, including a test of a metal 3D printer that could be used to build space station parts. They contributed to experiments examining how bubbles grow through electrolysis, evaluating water flow and droplet formation from a shower head, and testing options for liquid management in microgravity. Behnken also conducted four spacewalks with Cassidy to upgrade ISS systems or lay the groundwork for future spacewalks.

Demo-2 blasts off from the historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center on May 30. The Crew Dragon capsule was launched into orbit by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

On August 1, the day Endeavour undocked from ISS, the crew held a farewell ceremony for Behnken and Hurley. Cassidy gave Hurley an American flag that was delivered to the station on the last shuttle mission. “I’m very proud to return this flag home and see what’s next for it on its journey to the Moon,” Hurley said.

In a throwback to the Apollo program, Endeavour’s journey home would involve a splashdown off the coast of Florida. SpaceX had experimented with installing braking thrusters and extendable legs on Crew Dragon for terrestrial landings, but reports suggested this approach was abandoned because there is not enough empty, flat area in the United States for a safe landing, and because it would require extra time and resources to develop. Braking thrusters are not necessary in splashdown because parachutes slow the spacecraft and the water provides a cushion for it.

Endeavour splashed down at 2:48pm EDT on August 2. Fast boats carrying teams of SpaceX personnel were quickly deployed to inspect the capsule and prepare it for pickup by the recovery ship, GO Navigator. Endeavour was lifted onto the ship’s deck and moved to a stable location while medical personnel ran some initial checks on the astronauts. Behnken and Hurley were extracted from the spacecraft around 4:00pm EDT. “Thanks for doing the most difficult part and the most important part of human spaceflight: sending us into orbit and bringing us home,” said Behnken. “Thank you again for the good ship Endeavour.”

Endeavour splashes down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on August 2.

Successful completion of the Demo-2 mission is a major step forward for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, through which the agency is partnering with private aerospace companies to develop new spacecraft and launch systems that can carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit and to the ISS. Since the space shuttle program’s conclusion, NASA has been relying on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the ISS, but the Soyuz only carries three astronauts, or half an ISS crew, and each seat on the spacecraft costs NASA about $90 million. With safe and reliable commercial flight to the ISS, NASA hopes to achieve a more cost-effective transportation option that can increase crew and research time on board the space station.

Now that Endeavour is back on Earth, it will undergo a series of inspections and analyses as SpaceX and NASA officials work to complete Crew Dragon’s certification to fly operational missions to the ISS. Assuming the spacecraft is certified, Crew Dragon’s first operational mission, Crew-1, will take place in late September, with a Crew-2 mission slated for spring 2021.

Linda Grimm is a professional writer-editor from the Washington, D.C. metro area. She writes for publishing companies, trade and professional associations, and academic institutions, among others.