What started as a half-hour training mission for four astronauts ended at 8:55 p.m. EST, on Monday, as SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made a graceful descent back to Earth and dropped the astronauts off safely at the Florida coast in the company’s 18th SpaceX commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
This SpaceX mission heralds a new era of spaceflight: the first fully autonomous flights in space for NASA astronauts. For the first time in history, U.S. astronauts will be removed from the spacecraft’s human cargo, and successfully recovered and returned home to earth on unmanned spacecraft. In total, 20 rocket stages and 27 spacecraft have launched into space since SpaceX first pioneered commercial cargo shipments to the space station in 2012. It is doing so for a record $2.6 billion investment by NASA.
The Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft had been in orbit since December 2015 and did not have a fully loaded reentry trailer available for the crew’s return. As a result, the crew participated in a brief debrief, and then closed the hatch to the crew seat. The crew was then medically checked, and the astronauts exited to complete a final handoff between NASA and SpaceX controllers. Flight controllers initially pressed the landing button, but astronauts were more cautious due to fear of fires breaking out in the Soyuz capsule. The mission cleared that risk and the craft was at that very moment undergoing final precision touches to its landing.
While the rocket blasts itself back to Earth, it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at approximately 40,000 mph. As it slams into the planet’s atmosphere it forces its heat shield into release and its front section, known as the dorsal first stage, pops from the side and spirals back to the Earth’s surface at a speed of approximately 200 mph. The autopilot system automatically intercepts the capsule, tracks its speed, applies a few abort commands and then automatically hovers over the capsule and sets it down on its landing pad. The capsule will not be re-lubricated or re-sprayed after landing and all crew members were able to use life vests and dry phones upon exit to stay hydrated.
The crewmembers were captured on video shortly after landing, which is a rare event in the video camera era, when making return to home had been the norm prior to the dawn of the wide-format camera. Astronauts have been catching their own planet when they reenter in the 1980s, but it was the first time they had this video evidence.
This was the end of a very long mission for the crewmembers. The first flight was in 2008 and lasted about 44 days. The last scheduled flight to the space station in May is an even longer 132 days (a 16-day training mission).
Read the full story at the Los Angeles Times.
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