SpaceX's first-ever passenger flight to the International Space Station (ISS) ended successfully on August 2, 2020, when Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. After a series of safety checks, the recovery teams unlocked the capsule's hatch and quickly whisked the spacecraft's precious cargo — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to shore. During their total 64 days in space, the astronaut duo completed 1,024 orbits around Earth and traveled 27,147,284 miles.
"Welcome back to planet Earth," SpaceX's mission control radioed the two astronauts aboard the capsule. "Thanks for flying SpaceX."
"It was truly our honor and privilege," Hurley radioed back.
In an August 4, 2020, press conference, the astronauts recounted the crucial final minutes of the historic mission when the acorn-shaped Crew Dragon fired its rocket thrusters to slow its descent for re-entry, before piercing the outer atmosphere. "It came alive," Behnken told reporters of the nearly 12-minute thruster burn. "It doesn't sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere."
Hurley told reporters that following the successful splashdown, the astronauts had to complete one final task — "making prank satellite phone calls to whoever we can get a hold of." The scientists said the fun endeavor had a serious purpose. It ensured that future crews could use the emergency phone to contact mission control in case the spacecraft landed in an unexpected part of the ocean.
Crew Dragon Endeavour blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020. Nearly 19 hours later, on May 31, 2020, the spacecraft autonomously docked to the forward port of ISS's Harmony module. Hurley and Behnken spent their 62 days aboard the station conducting scientific experiments alongside Expedition 63's crew and participating in numerous public engagement activities. Behnken also accompanied ISS Commander and NASA colleague Chris Cassidy on four spacewalks to upgrade two power channels on the station's truss with new lithium-ion batteries.
The expedition marked the first time astronauts have been launched into orbit aboard a privately-built spacecraft. It was also the first crewed orbital piloted launch from American soil since the US Space Shuttle program ended in July 2011. To commemorate the historic occasion, Behnken and Hurley brought home an important souvenir — a small American flag that traveled on both the first space shuttle mission (STS-1 in 1981) and the last (STS-135 in 2011). The STS-135 mission crew, which coincidentally included Hurley, had left the flag at the ISS with the stipulation that it be returned to Earth by astronauts launching from US soil.
Though it has already logged over 27 million miles during its nine years in orbit, the flag's journey is far from over. NASA officials next hope to dispatch it with the first US crewed mission beyond Earth's orbit. This means that the well-traveled artifact could soon be visiting the Moon or perhaps even Mars!
With the final test flight complete, NASA will spend the next few weeks analyzing performance data from the Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and ground systems, as well as in-orbit, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations. If everything is satisfactory, SpaceX will become the first private company to be certified to transport astronauts to the ISS.
In anticipation of the pending approval, SpaceX is already preparing for its first two operational missions. Crew-1 will launch in late September 2020, with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi on board for a six-month stint at the ISS.
Crew-2, scheduled for Spring 2021, will also ferry four astronauts to the ISS. Among them will be Behnken's wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur. While the veteran scientist did serve as a Mission Specialist aboard STS-125, the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, this will be her first visit to the ISS and, of course, the first trip on the Crew Dragon spacecraft. But given that her spouse has done both, she has little to worry about.
"Of course, I'll have a lot of tips for her," Behnken said. "A lot of them will be about how life on space station goes. I think that's been the thing that's been more unique, rather than the capsule itself. I think that's probably where I'll have the most to share with her, but I definitely have some advice about living inside of Dragon."
Resources: Space.com, NASA.gov, theverge.com