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Crew Dragon may have to wait to return to Earth thanks to Mother Nature

Published Jul 31st, 2020 6:03PM EDT
crew dragon return
Image: NASA

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  • NASA and SpaceX are planning to return Crew Dragon to Earth on Sunday after a departure from the ISS on Saturday.
  • A tropical storm now threatens some of the recovery zones, throwing the schedule into question.
  • This will be the first time Crew Dragon has returned to Earth with humans on board.

NASA’s Commercial Crew

program suffered many delays on its road to the eventual crewed launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (and we’re still waiting on Boeing to hold up its end of the deal, too), so it’s only fitting that the spacecraft’s first return to Earth would also be impacted by a delay of some sort. The planned departure of the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission on Saturday and return to Earth on Sunday is now in the hands of Mother Nature.

NASA has been keeping a close eye on the recently-named Tropical Storm Isaias, which, based on its current trajectory, would bring it uncomfortably close to several of the planned landing zones for the Crew Dragon on Sunday.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted that the space agency had “some weather pending” with regard to its plans for a departure of Crew Dragon from the ISS on Saturday. Steve Stich, who heads the Commercial Crew program, took things a step further by noting at a recent press briefing that the space agency would “not even going to try to undock” the spacecraft if the weather didn’t look favorable for a landing the following day.

Once Crew Dragon detaches from the ISS with its two crew members, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, it doesn’t have to head straight back to Earth. The spacecraft is capable of supporting the two men for at least a couple of days in Earth orbit before it has to land, but once it undocks from its current home on the ISS, the clock is definitely ticking. With that in mind, it makes the most sense for NASA and SpaceX to wait to undock until they can be sure of a prompt return to Earth.

“Teams will continue to closely monitor Tropical Storm Isaias and evaluate impacts to weather around the Florida peninsula, including the potential splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico and along the state’s Atlantic coast,” NASA said. “NASA and SpaceX will make a decision on a primary splashdown target approximately 6 hours before undocking Saturday.”

At present, the departure remains a “Go” despite the weather issues, but as is often the case, these things can change rapidly. If the departure has to be pushed back from August 1st, NASA will likely pick a new date for its return quickly. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can’t be certified by NASA until it completes this last leg of its mission, which is to return humans safely to Earth. Once it gets that stamp of approval, NASA can begin using the Crew Dragon for regular missions.