After a flawless launch from Florida, the Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken docked at the International Space Station just over three weeks ago.
Before this flight of Dragonship effort, one of the most important questions that NASA and SpaceX engineers had to do with the durability of the spacecraft. The first Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on an unmanned test flight, in 2019, and spent less than a week connected to the space station. NASA hoped that this Dragon could last a few months in space.
In particular, the engineers were not sure how fast EffortSolar panels would degrade and consequently produce less energy. Therefore, since the spacecraft docked at the station, it has been powered on once a week to test the output power of the solar panels.
So far, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said, the panels are producing more energy than expected. “The vehicle is performing extremely well as we test it,” Stich said Wednesday during a press conference. NASA expected Effort It could remain docked on the space station for 114 days, and Dragon should be able to reach that threshold easily.
However, Stich said the current plan is to get the crew home within six weeks, possibly as early as August 2. There are a couple of reasons for this. Although Hurley and Behnken have been trained to help conduct investigations on the International Space Station, their main mission was to test the Crew Dragon built by SpaceX. The sooner they get home, the sooner NASA and SpaceX can work to qualify Dragon for operational missions.
The spacecraft built for the first operational mission, which transports four astronauts to the space station, is undergoing final tests at the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California. It should be shipped to the launch site in Florida in late July, Stich said. The space agency needs about six weeks later Effort It lands to evaluate the data and certify the Crew Dragon vehicle for missions that transport four people for longer stays at the station.
Another factor is spacewalks. NASA authorities estimate that it will take about four forays outside the station to change two sets of batteries outside the orbiting laboratory. These spacewalks are expected to be carried out by Behnken and another NASA astronaut at the station, Chris Cassidy, starting this month and in July. Once this is done, Hurley and Behnken will be ready to head home.
Stich said Dragon has been tested in other ways while in orbit, such as its thermal performance as the station passes from full sun, behind Earth and vice versa. All of this data has also been promising, he said. However, Dragon’s biggest test will be done during the decoupling and reentry process: NASA and SpaceX did a great job of perfecting the parachutes on the spacecraft, including changing the overall design last year and subsequently performing more than a dozen additional drop tests.
Where the Dragon lands when it returns to Earth will depend in part on the weather, but NASA has options both in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.
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