Technology

More quickly than anyone expected, NASA embraces reuse for human flights

  • Crew Dragon is shown docked to the Harmony module on the International Space Station. NASA
  • SpaceX's Crew Dragon (center right), the Japanese HTV resupply ship (center bottom), and Europe's Columbus laboratory module appear in this photo taken during a spacewalk conducted by Bob Behnken and Chris Cassidy. NASA
  • NASA and SpaceX bartered to extend the Demo-2 mission. This allowed astronaut Bob Behnken to conduct four spacewalks during his two months on station. NASA
  • Dragon is shown coming in for its final approach in late May. NASA TV
  • After the space shuttle and Russian Soyuz, Dragon is the third type of crewed vehicle to dock at the space station. NASA TV

Weather permitting, SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday. Forecasters are closely watching conditions due to Hurricane Isaias but are hopeful the mission will find calm seas and light winds offshore from the Florida Panhandle.

Unlike the Apollo missions, which returned to Earth in the Pacific Ocean, NASA and SpaceX chose to target a splashdown near the Florida Peninsula. The main reason they did this is to get crews more quickly back to their homes, near Houston, after a spaceflight.

However, landing Dragon near Florida has another advantage for SpaceX. By splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico or nearshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean, a SpaceX recovery boat can transport the Crew Dragon vehicle back to the company's facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station within days. This has become all the more important after a recent announcement that NASA will allow SpaceX to begin reusing its Crew Dragon spacecraft early next year.

Although the company's next human spaceflight, Crew-1, will launch no earlier than late September on a new Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, that will not be the case for the subsequent mission. This Crew-2 flight, due to launch no earlier than spring 2021, will reuse the Falcon 9 first stage from the Crew-1 mission, and the Dragon capsule is expected to splash down this weekend.

Benji Reed, who directs Crew Mission Management at SpaceX, said Thursday that the company has a plan to refurbish a Crew Dragon capsule in a couple of months, which includes removing exterior panels and checking the underlying hardware. This would leave a couple of months of "margin" for processing Crew Dragon for a launch in early 2021. Each vehicle should be able to fly up to five missions into orbit.

Seeking sustainability

The reuse of rockets and spacecraft always seemed like it would be part of SpaceX and NASA's extended plans for human spaceflights, but few anticipated it happening so quickly. NASA&#03Read More – Source

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