SpaceX Demo-2 Flight Test Ends With Crew Splashdown

Crew Dragon
Space X's Crew Dragon capsule is recovered from the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit: SpaceX/NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL—SpaceX ended its first crewed spaceflight—a two-month test run to the International Space Station (ISS)—on Aug. 2 with a successful parachute splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, flying as test pilots for the SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2 (Demo-2), landed in flat seas and 2 mph winds at 2:48 p.m. EDT, capping NASA’s six-year effort to restore U.S. human orbital flight capability after the space shuttles’ retirement in 2011. 

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX,” SpaceX Demo-2 crew liaison Mike Heiman said.

The Demo-2 mission followed a March 2019 uncrewed flight test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, an upgrade of the Dragon cargo ships the company has been flying to the ISS for NASA since 2012. 

NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop, test and fly two human orbital flight systems, ending reliance on Russia for ISS crew transport following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles. 

Boeing is repeating its uncrewed flight test of the CST-100 Starliner capsule after software and verification problems surfaced during an abbreviated December 2019 orbital debut. The Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 is expected in November, with a crew flight test to follow in early 2021. 

Meanwhile, with end of the Demo-2 mission, NASA and SpaceX will turn their attention to completing certification of the SpaceX Crew Dragon system, a process that is expected to take about six weeks, SpaceX director of Crew Mission Management Benjamin Reed told reporters on July 29. 

“After we’ve got Bob and Doug safely home we’ll start to look into the vehicle, open it up…make sure everything looks great and gather a lot of data. We’ll also download all the data that has been recorded on the vehicle,” Reed said.

“Immediately after splashdown we’ll start assessing and analyzing all of that data  and…once we feel really good about everything that happened on this test mission, we wrap up the certification process overall for the program and move on to the operational state,” he said.

NASA and SpaceX are targeting late September for the first operational mission, Crew-1, with U.S. astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Soichi Noguchi. 

The Dragon capsule for Crew-1 is due to ship out from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, manufacturing facility in early August and arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch preparations. 

Behnken and Hurley, both making their third spaceflights, lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on May 30 and reached the ISS the following day. The approach and docking were automated, but the astronauts also practiced manually controlling Dragon’s flight systems, inputting commands via touchscreen.

Upon arrival at the station, the astronauts joined a three-member resident crew, temporarily alleviating a staffing shortage caused by U.S. rides on Russian Soyuz capsules coming to an end. 

While aboard the station, Behnken and ISS commander Christopher Cassidy completed a quartet of spacewalks to wrap up a 3.5-year project to replace the station’s nickel-hydrogen batteries with more efficient lithium-ion units. 

Cassidy is due to remain onboard the station with Russian crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner until October. With the start of operational flights aboard Crew Dragon and Starliner, ISS staffing will grow to seven.

Behnken and Hurley wrapped up their two-month stay on the station on Aug. 1. Crew Dragon departed the ISS at 7:35 p.m. EDT to begin a 19-hr. trip back to Earth. 

With Hurricane Isaias skirting along Florida’s Atlantic coast, NASA and SpaceX turned their attention to landing sites west of the peninsula, settling on Pensacola, the farthest away from the storm. 

After a night’s sleep, Behnken and Hurley donned their pressurized one-piece flight suits and began preparing for the trip home.

Dragon jettisoned its unpressurized trunk section at 1:52 p.m. EDT, exposing the heat shield needed to protect the ship during its 3,500-deg. F plunge through atmosphere.

Four minutes later, with Dragon soaring 260 mi. southwest of Australia, four Draco thrusters ignited for 11 min. 22 sec., slowing the ship by about 160 mph so it could leave orbit and begin the hour-long glide back to Earth. 

Before launch, SpaceX founder, CEO and chief engineer Elon Musk said he was most concerned if Crew Dragon’s asymmetrical shape—four SuperDraco thruster pods protrude from the vehicle’s outer mold line—would pose challenges during re-entry. 

Musk and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell sat side-by-side in the front row of SpaceX’s flight control room nervously monitoring the capsule’s drop through the atmosphere. It was a high-stakes moment for the company, founded 18 years ago to develop technologies to expand the human race beyond Earth. After nearly 100 launches, Demo-2 was SpaceX’s first crewed mission. 

The capsule’s descent proved flawless, with a pair of drogue chutes deploying at 18,000 ft., followed by four primary parachutes at  6,000 ft. Splashdown occurred about 39 mi. off the coast of Pensacola at 2:48 p.m. EDT.

Fast boats dispatched from SpaceX’s primary recovery vessel, Go Navigator, reached the capsule minutes later for initial inspections and to check for the presence of any hypergolic propellant vapors. The crews then attached rigging to hoist the capsule onto the deck of the recovery ship. It was plucked out of the water a half-hour after splashdown. 

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.