30 May 2020 witnessed a historic moment when SpaceX’s space capsule, Crew Dragon, carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken docked at the International Space Station (ISS). They returned on 2 August 2020 and became the first astronauts to do a space expedition in a space capsule developed by a private manufacturer.
While explaining the atmospheric entry of Crew Dragon, the astronaut duo said that the space vehicle came “alive”, and it vibrated and shook. “I did record some audio of it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise,” Behnken said during a virtual press conference held post-landing.
“The atmosphere starts to make noise, you can hear that rumble outside the vehicle and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel a little bit of that shimmy in your body.”
Behnken explained that the sensation while riding down was “very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack”.
The space capsule undocked from the Space Station on Saturday, 1 August 2020, two months after they landed at the ISS. It plummeted through the earth’s atmosphere, gaining magnitude as it descended and plopped down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, 2 August 2020.
The process of landing was a strenuous one. An hour before the touchdown, the space capsule ejected its trunk and fired its thrusters and exited from the orbit. Soon after entering the upper atmosphere, the outer surface of the Crew Dragon heated up, reaching a temperature of 3500 Fahrenheit. Close to landing, the capsule fired the parachutes and splashed down in the sea at 2.48 p.m. ET. The recovery vehicles deployed by SpaceX met the capsule soon after the water landing to get the astronauts out of the seawater.
Hurley said that due to the stressful descend and scorches on the capsule, they couldn’t see anything clearly after landing. “[Atmospheric] reentry is a pretty demanding environment as you know with the different scorches on the vehicle, and the windows were not spared any of that,” The Verge quoted Hurley.
“The look out the windows, you could basically tell that it was daylight but very little else. So we didn’t really see anything clearly out of the windows until the SpaceX recovery crews got near with the fast boats, and then we can see a head or two out there.”
The duo stated that the simulations and trainings that helped them complete the mission successfully, without any “big surprises”.
Though the coast guard had laid down some restrictions for other boats at the landing site, boats thronged the touchdown site defying the warnings, creating much confusion to the retrieving crew. The successful completion of the mission opens the possibility of SpaceX Crew Dragon to be certified for regular space service. The next mission is scheduled for September this year. The Space Shuttle program veterans Behnken and Hurley had been coaching with SpaceX for the last five years.