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SpaceX Crew Dragon hit a huge milestone, but it’s not done yet

Published Jun 1st, 2020 6:38PM EDT
crew dragon
Image: NASA

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  • SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has passed several milestones over the past few days, but it still has to complete a safe return to Earth before NASA can certify it.
  • Once Crew Dragon is certified, it can be used whenever NASA wants to send humans back and forth to the International Space Station.
  • With its own spacecraft to launch from US soil, NASA no longer has to rely on seats aboard Russian spacecraft headed for the ISS.

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule traveled to space atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday, it was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal when the Crew Dragon docked with the International Space Station, allowing two NASA crew members to join their peers in the orbiting laboratory. Those were two huge accomplishments, but NASA has yet to actually certify Crew Dragon as being ready for regular use in space missions. It can’t do that until the spacecraft makes it back to Earth in one piece.

The final hurdle for SpaceX and Crew Dragon is a safe return to Earth with astronauts on board. Unfortunately for SpaceX, NASA hasn’t decided when that return trip will actually happen.

SpaceX is obviously very proud that it beat Boeing in delivering the first Commercial Crew spacecraft to NASA. It’s become part of NASA’s history in a hugely important way, and thus far, everything has gone to plan. However, if you were a member of SpaceX, you probably can’t help but wish NASA would call the astronaut duo of Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken home sooner rather than later.

NASA, on the other hand, just sent a couple of talented people into space and would love to make the most of the mission, even though it’s technically a SpaceX “demo” mission. NASA says the astronauts will remain aboard the space station for anywhere from a month to several months. We likely won’t know when NASA plans on recalling the Crew Dragon and its astronaut pair until shortly before they eventually depart.

In the meantime, SpaceX will have to wait patiently for Crew Dragon to pass its final test. A safe landing on Earth will mean NASA can finally certify the spacecraft for continued use, and doing so will officially add it to NASA’s arsenal.

Meanwhile, Boeing, the other participant in the Commercial Crew program, has struggled at several stages of its Starliner project. The Starliner was supposed to make an uncrewed trip to the space station months ago but a “glitch” resulted in the spacecraft burning through too much fuel and it was forced to return to Earth without completing its primary goal.

NASA decided that Boeing would need to retry the mission before it was comfortable sending its own astronauts into space aboard the Starliner, and we still don’t know exactly when that mission will get off the ground. After Boeing completes that mission, NASA will have the opportunity to authorize a crewed demo mission and then ultimately certify Starliner as well.

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