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It’s make-or-break time for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

Published Jul 17th, 2020 4:43PM EDT
crew dragon return
Image: NASA

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  • NASA has announced that the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft will return to Earth on August 2nd.
  • The capsule, with astronauts Behnken and Hurley aboard, will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Once the return is completed, NASA will be able to certify Crew Dragon for continued use.

SpaceX has had an incredibly busy year, but its biggest accomplishment in 2020 is definitely its first crewed mission to the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley rode to the space station in a first for both SpaceX and its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission, thus far, has been a success, but now we know when Crew Dragon is going to return to Earth, completing its historic round trip.

CNBC reports that NASA is currently planning on a splashdown of the Crew Dragon on August 2nd. The astronauts will depart the space station late in the day (Eastern Time) on August 1st and eventually land in the Atlantic Ocean at around 3 p.m. on the following day.

It’s easy to forget that the mission that Behnken and Hurley are currently on is still just a demo trip to prove that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is up to the task of ferrying scientists back and forth to the orbiting laboratory. The trip to the ISS went well, but its biggest test will be to safely return them to Earth.

Once SpaceX checks that huge item off of its list, NASA can move forward to certify Crew Dragon and begin using it to regularly send its astronauts into space. It’ll be a very big day for NASA and SpaceX, and all eyes will be on Crew Dragon as it endures the stresses of reentry with a pair of astronauts riding along.

If all goes well — and at this point, we have no reason to think that any issues will arise — and NASA certifies the Crew Dragon for continued use, it will be on deck for its first true operational mission. That mission, which will be considered Crew-1, will carry a full complement of four astronauts into space instead of the two astronauts that flew on this last Demo-2 mission.

It’s pretty incredible that we’ve reached this point in the Commercial Crew program — or perhaps the incredible thing is that longtime NASA contractor Boeing isn’t a part of the history-making. Early on, Boeing was thought to be a shoo-in to deliver its Starliner crew capsule to NASA before SpaceX was able to complete the Crew Dragon.

Unfortunately for Boeing, a host of delays and issues with the spacecraft pushed things back. When Starliner had its chance to prove it could fly to the ISS and back in an uncrewed mission, it completely failed to do so. The company now has to retry that uncrewed mission before NASA is willing to let astronauts ride aboard it for its own second demo mission.