SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has been docked at the International Space Station (ISS) since its historic first crewed launch in May, but it’s getting ready to make its return trip. NASA had planned to keep the spacecraft and astronauts at ISS for a while, depending on station mission needs, but they’re zeroing in on the exact time to cap the inaugural Crew Dragon human spaceflight mission with its return trip.
NASA Johnson Space Center public affair rep Kyle Herring tweeted the target date of August 2 as the planned return trip window, though he later clarified that there’s still a lot of work to be done before that gets pinned down.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been taking part in various scientific and maintenance work at the Space Station since their arrival, including Behnken taking part in four spacewalks, with three already completed and one planned for next week – a major upcoming endeavor cited by Herring as something that’ll require focus ahead of more concrete return trip planning. This first crewed Dragon flight is actually still a demonstration mission, not an official operational ISS crew launch, but NASA made the call to extend it to include Behnken and Hurley contributing to regular station operations during their time on orbit.
This return trip is just as critical to the overall success of SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew collaboration as was the May launch; it’s obviously vital that SpaceX’s crew spacecraft be able not only to get astronauts to the Space Station reliably, but also to get them back home again safely, too.
During this return leg of the trip, the Crew Dragon capsule will perform an automated undocking and return flight maneuver, with Behnken and Hurley aboard. It’ll enter the Earth’s atmosphere and slow its descent once it’s in with a parachute system designed and tested by SpaceX, hopefully leading to a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean for the astronauts, where they’ll be retrieved by a SpaceX dedicated retrieval crew.
Weather conditions need to be right for a return trip to proceed – and for this Demo-2 mission, the tolerances around what kind of wind speeds are allowable for the mission to proceed are pretty tight. That said, August tends to be a relatively calm month wind-wise in the target splashdown area, so that should help.