CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The SpaceX spacecraft that made history after successfully completing its first flight with two NASA astronauts is not done yet, it will be refurbished and reflown again.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken arrived safely home Sunday in their Dragon spacecraft nicknamed Endeavour, splashing down off Florida’s west coast in the first splashdown since the Apollo program.
SpaceX COO Gywnne Shotwell said based on the data from the spacecraft so far and the successful Demo-2 mission, the spacecraft performed well.
“Based on the telemetry, and any visual indications that we’ve had so far, the vehicle looks like it’s in really good shape,” Shotwell told reporters Sunday a few hours after the splashdown.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft was designed to fly on five to 10 missions with maintenance between spaceflights.
Dragon, a once mostly white capsule, looked a little like a well-toasted marshmallow after returning to Earth. The heat shield on the spacecraft absorbed the fiery temperatures and the astronauts inside never got warmer than about 80 degrees, according to SpaceX.
The capsule will be examined by SpaceX and NASA teams once it arrives back at Cape Canaveral.
Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said it will take about four months to refurbish the spacecraft before it can fly astronauts again.
“As soon as it gets back to Area 59 at the Cape, it’ll start going through its maintenance, and NASA is a part of that maintenance ... and we’ll follow along with every step of that maintenance, and also look, re-look at all the certification just to make sure that there’s nothing untoward,” Stich said.
Stich said NASA and SpaceX will first review all of the telemetry for undocking, splashdown and recovery, including life support systems.
The two sets of parachutes used to slow the spacecraft as it comes back to Earth will also be examined. The spacecraft had two drogue parachutes that started slowing the spacecraft and then four main parachutes that deployed before splashdown. Boats were able to recover those on Sunday in the Gulf after the landing.
“SpaceX was doing a great job of recovering those chutes today so we’ll take those back and analyze those, look at it, just to see that they’re performing well,” Stich said Sunday during a post-landing news conference.
NASA officials have said developing and testing the parachutes for landing was one of the most difficult aspects for both SpaceX and Boeing as they’ve developed their independent astronaut spacecraft.
Next, SpaceX will take apart Dragon Endeavour to evaluate how the hardware held up during the spaceflight. The spacecraft nose cone, which hosts the docking ring used to connect to the International Space Station, will come off, as well as the heat shield, said Stich.
“Sometimes we can learn things from that and so we’ll do that inspection and then we’ll put all that data together and head into the certification review,” Stich said.
The extensive evaluation of Dragon will help SpaceX earn its final flight certification, giving the spacecraft its final seal of approval from NASA to fly astronauts on the regular.
That final review could happen by the end of August or early September, Sitch said.
The next group set to fly on Dragon Endeavour is made up of two NASA astronauts: a Japanese astronaut and a European astronaut. That launch is known as Crew-2, as the second operational mission for the spacecraft, and is expected sometime in spring 2021.
A different Crew Dragon spacecraft is slated to launch four crew -- three Americans and one Japanese astronauts -- in late September.
NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley are seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after having landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The Demo-2 test flight for NASA's Commercial Crew Program was the first to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and return them safely to Earth onboard a commercially built and operated spacecraft. Behnken and Hurley returned after spending 64 days in space. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)