Eric Berger

After a flawless launch from Florida, the Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken docked with the International Space Station a little more than three weeks ago.

Before this flight of Dragonship Endeavour, one of the biggest questions from engineers at NASA and SpaceX concerned the durability of the spacecraft. The first Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on an uncrewed test flight in 2019 and spent less than a week attached to the space station. NASA hoped this Dragon could last a few months in space.

In particular, the engineers were not sure how quickly Endeavour‘s solar panels would degrade and accordingly produce less power. Therefore, since the spacecraft docked to the station, it has been powered up once a week to test power output from the solar panels.

So far, said the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, the panels are producing more power than expected. “The vehicle is doing extremely well as we put it through its paces,” Stich said Wednesday during a news conference. NASA had hoped Endeavour could stay docked to the space station for as long as 114 days, and Dragon should easily be able to meet that threshold.

However, Stich said the current plan is to bring the crew home about six weeks from now, possibly as early as August 2. There are a couple of reasons for this. Although Hurley and Behnken have trained to help conduct research on the International Space Station, their primary mission was to test out the SpaceX-built Crew Dragon. The sooner they come home, the sooner NASA and SpaceX can work to qualify Dragon for operational missions.

The spacecraft built for the first operational mission, carrying four astronauts to the space station, is undergoing final tests at SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. It should be shipped to the launch site in Florida at the end of July, Stich said. The space agency needs about six weeks after Endeavour lands to assess the data and certify the Crew Dragon vehicle for missions carrying four people for longer-duration stays at the station.

Another factor is spacewalks. NASA officials estimate it will take about four forays outside the station to swap out two sets of batteries on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory. Behnken and another NASA astronaut on the station, Chris Cassidy, are expected to conduct these spacewalks beginning later this month and in July. Once that’s done, Hurley and Behnken will be ready to return home.

NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy (top) and Bob Behnken will conduct several spacewalks in the coming weeks.
Enlarge / NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy (top) and Bob Behnken will conduct several spacewalks in the coming weeks.

NASA

Stich said Dragon has been tested other ways while in orbit, including its thermal performance as the station goes from full sunshine to behind the Earth and back. All of this data has been promising, too, he said. Dragon’s biggest test, however, will come during the undocking and reentry process—NASA and SpaceX did a lot of work to perfect the parachutes on the spacecraft, including changing the overall design last year and subsequently performing more than a dozen additional drop tests.

Where Dragon lands when it returns to Earth will depend partly on weather, but NASA has options in both the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Listing image by NASA



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