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After splashdown, what’s next for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft?

Carrying astronauts for the very first time, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule safely returned to Earth on Sunday, August 2, after splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida.

The Demo-2 mission was the first astronaut splashdown in 45 years and also marked the first crewed launch and landing in American territory since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.

SpaceX’s successful Demo-1 mission started at the end of May when it launched NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS) for a two-month stay.

The mission is a major achievement for SpaceX as it continues to develop its reusable space transportation system for more cost-effective missions to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.

So, now that it’s back on Earth, what’s next for Crew Dragon Endeavour?

Crew Dragon Endeavour shortly after being pulled from the water on Sunday, August 2, 2020. NASA

First, after Hurley and Behnken exited the spacecraft, it had to be hauled out of the water and onto the GO Navigator recovery vessel.

NASA said the capsule will then be transported to the SpaceX “Dragon Lair” facility in Florida, where it will be carefully inspected following a challenging journey home in which huge stresses were placed on its exterior as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Any necessary maintenance work will be carried out, while the capsule will also be given a thorough clean to return it to its original look.

SpaceX will also spend time analyzing the data and performance of the spacecraft throughout the entirety of its entire two-month mission. If everything looks good, SpaceX will be able to complete the certification of the system, enabling it to fly operational missions for NASA’s Commercial Crew and ISS Programs. The certification process is likely to take around six weeks to complete.

Assuming Crew Dragon Endeavour comes through with flying colors, the first operational mission, called Crew-1, should launch in September for the ISS with Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker — all of NASA — together with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s mission specialist Soichi Noguchi.

Besides the Crew Dragon capsule, SpaceX is already able to return the first-stage booster of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle to Earth for reuse, as well as the fairing that sits atop the rocket for satellite-deployment missions. Engineers are exploring ways to recover the second-stage booster, a more challenging feat than the first-stage return as it needs to be brought down in a controlled way from a far greater height in a precarious high-speed descent.

Following the completion of the Demo-2 mission on Sunday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together to do something once thought impossible. Partners are key to how we go farther than ever before and take the next steps on daring missions to the moon and Mars.”

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Trevor Mogg
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