Timeline for the fall of the Dragon

By Phil Plait | May 30, 2012 2:06 pm

Tomorrow morning, Thursday May 31, the SpaceX Dragon capsule will undock from the International Space Station, perform a series of maneuvers, and then come back home to Earth. Over at The Planetary Society Blog, Jason Davis has a great writeup giving the times of the key events.

The preliminary stuff happens in the middle of the night for me in Colorado, but the actual descent to Earth happens at a much more palatable time. At 14:51 UTC (10:51 a.m. Eastern US time) the Dragon will begin the deorbit burn, dropping it lower in orbit. Less than an hour later, at 15:44 UTC it is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific ocean about 900 km (540 miles) off the coast of Los Angeles in California.

This will all be covered by various live webstreams, including NASA TV. I’ll be on Twitter as early as I can and I’ll update this post with more video streams as I hear of them.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Comments (23)

  1. Chris

    They should so have a guy in armor with a sword on a horse to capture the dragon.

  2. Jeff

    So what sort of assets does SpaceX have in place to retrieve the capsule?

  3. gopher65

    Phil: Did you know NASA is commissioning a new Dragon capsule for each and every resupply mission to the ISS? 2 test capsules and 12 mission capsules. No reuse:P. SpaceX says they may well reuse the 12 mission capsules for other non-NASA missions later on (DragonLab missions were specifically mentioned as a possibility in the interview I saw), with the 2 test capsules likely going on display.

  4. gopher65

    Jeff: SpaceX contracts with a company that will retrieve the capsules for them. They don’t have to worry about it. NASA also provides air support with 2 aircraft watching the incoming capsule (and SpaceX has their own aircraft to complement the 2 NASA provided planes).

  5. Cairnos

    Guess this’ll be the big test for using it to transport personell.

  6. gss_000

    Speaking about reusability, I wonder how they are progressing on making their Falcon 9 stages more reusable. I think it was by flight 6 they were supposed to be able to reuse the first stage(?) but I’ve heard no word on that. A lot of their costs estimates are tied to items like this so I’m really hoping they can do it, but having followed the company for years they fail as hard as other companies when it comes to schedule estimates.

    Still, looking forward to the US regaining downmass capabilities we lost with the shuttle. Too bad we’re not close to regaining orbital construction. One day.

  7. Calli Arcale

    I remain skeptical of reusable stages; I’m glad they decided not to try to do that all right away. I don’t blame NASA for paying for all new capsules each time — it reduces their risk, and hey, it’s still a good deal. ;-) I hope SpaceX is able to refurbish and refly them on other missions; I’m hopeful that a real manned space industry will develop from these beginnings.

  8. Marshall

    A SpaceX news release posted at SpaceRef has some more details on the recovery plan. See http://spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=37234 . In particular, it says there will be about a dozen SpaceX personnel on the boats waiting to retrieve it, so it’s a bit of hyperbole to say “They don’t have to worry about it.”

    For the reusability – keep an eye on their Grasshopper prototype, currently sitting on a launch pad in Texas. This is their test rig for vertical controlled rocket landings, and they’ve filed plans with the FAA for something like 70 test flights a year (launch, fly up between a few hundred feet and a few thousand feet, then land back on the pad). Sounds like they’re aiming to have some serious landing practice in short order before trying with the F9.

  9. Ferris Valyn

    gss_ooo – Other people have been wondering that as well. Rand Simberg, another space report/activist, asked someone from SpaceX recently.

    Here is what Mr. Simberg reported

    “As I suspected, [the SpaceX rep] told me that they’re not worrying about recovery of the first stage right now, and probably won’t until they start to attempt to fly it back, pending results of the Grasshopper flights.”

    You can read his whole post at http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=42721

    BTW, those who don’t know about Grasshopper – SpaceX’s re-usability plans will look like this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSF81yjVbJE

    Grasshopper is intended to be a testbed for demonstrating first stage re-usability.

  10. Joe Alvord

    gss_000…

    They are working on reusability, but it is far from ready. There is good discussion on this subject at http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=27748.0

  11. Jerry

    Too bad they can’t detach the solar panels from the trunk and use them on the ISS. I would think that slapping old Dragon panels to an ion thruster might help with an altitude boost or station keeping.

    Seems a waste to let such weight burn up in the atmosphere.

  12. Georg

    Why do
    they go down in the sea, as Nasa always did, whereas Russians
    did/do the landing on soil?
    Is there some “Reason” behind this difference, or just tradition?
    Georg

  13. Paul

    #6: I surmise they determined the unaltered first stage doesn’t survive the kind of reentry it now experiences. Too bad, that would have been nice.

    A future scheme appears to have the first stage reignite and decelerate after separation, and eventually do a powered landing. This would probably make the most sense for the side modules of the Falcon Heavy, which detach fairly early (since their tanks also cross feed to the center stage, which won’t use its own propellant until after they are gone.)

    Reusing the upper stage may never make sense, due to the serious thermal environment it would face on reentry.

  14. vince charles

    7. Calli Arcale Said:
    May 30th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    “I remain skeptical of reusable stages; I’m glad they decided not to try to do that all right away. I don’t blame NASA for paying for all new capsules each time — it reduces their risk, and hey, it’s still a good deal. I hope SpaceX is able to refurbish and refly them on other missions; I’m hopeful that a real manned space industry will develop from these beginnings.”

    Yes, it’s a mixed bag. Play your cards right, and reusability saves money in some areas. Mess it up, and it actually costs more money (i.e., Shuttle). For early-service vehicles like these, the big attraction is the ability to examine and dissect your design (i.e., Ariane 5 rocket boosters) after “live fire” testing, which can’t truly be simulated, and fix any mistakes in later units. Actually re-flying these two or three test craft doesn’t make much sense, when the capsule design will be upgraded for humans anyway.

    NASA contracted the company by the pound, not by the hardware. If a Dragon meets its contractual goals for cargo delivery without being reused, then… it meets its contractual goals. Recovery and examination benefits SpaceX’s internal engineering and programs, and was never called for in the deal the customer signed. Just like Ariane 5’s boosters.

  15. vince charles

    8. Jerry Said:
    May 30th, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    “Too bad they can’t detach the solar panels from the trunk and use them on the ISS. I would think that slapping old Dragon panels to an ion thruster might help with an altitude boost or station keeping.”

    There isn’t really a place to mount a trunk for both light gathering and thrusting. The ideal place is the Zvezda port, which shouldn’t be blocked for Progress and ATV (which do the actual boosting).

    And last I checked, the station was power-rich. Adding more panels might even hurt, by increasing frontal area and thus drag. This was a while ago, though, so the situation might be different.

  16. vince charles

    10. Paul Said:
    May 31st, 2012 at 5:05 am

    “#6: I surmise they determined the unaltered first stage doesn’t survive the kind of reentry it now experiences. Too bad, that would have been nice.”

    Nah, they just haven’t been able to pull it off before. Lots of bad luck, mostly. So, I surmise, they don’t intend to push their luck again anytime soon.
    .

    “Reusing the upper stage may never make sense, due to the serious thermal environment it would face on reentry.”

    And yet, they’re going for it anyway. Or at least, they’re pitching reuse of the upper stage. They pitched reuse of first stages, and you and I both know how that turned out.

  17. puppygod

    @Georg

    Why do they go down in the sea, as Nasa always did, whereas Russians did/do the landing on soil?
    Is there some “Reason” behind this difference, or just tradition?
    Georg

    Well, I don’t know, but nonetheless I wanted to point that Russia (and Soviet Union before) have a lot of land area largely free of lawsuit-happy population, while most of their shoreline is frozen solid. Conversely, US have a lot of easily accessible ocean, whereas Dragon landing in somebody backyard and squishing children in the process would be bad publicity.

  18. gopher65

    vince charles: According to a recent interview with one of SpaceX’s managers, NASA required all new hardware for every flight. The contract wasn’t as simple as “they just got paid by the pound”.

  19. Calli Arcale

    puppygod is correct — Russia favors land because it has a great deal of it, and the US favors oceans because they’re easy targets and it is blessed with an almost ridiculous amount of shoreline. (Russia has a lot of shoreline too, but it’s mostly in the Arctic and often icebound.) There’s also the security factor. The Soviets were very secretive about their manned program; the general public never saw a clear picture of Soyuz until the ASTP flight in 1975, which NASA insisted on filming per its public disclosure tradition. Thus, the Soviets greatly preferred landing within their borders, where they could easily control access. This is also informed by the history of spy satellite film capsules; the early Vostok spacecraft was derived from a film capsule. These *have* to land within your territory. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were designed by a civilian agency, and thus didn’t borrow much from an existing history of reentry vehicles; the designers thus picked the biggest target they could find (the ocean). ;-) It also probably made a difference that the US has a huge Navy, and that our launch sites are coastal — the capability for water landing is *mandatory* when an early abort will drop you in the drink.

    Incidentally, there has been a Soviet water landing. One Soyuz mission inadvertently landed on a lake. It was very nearly a disaster, between stormy conditions, very cold water, and a parachute that filled with water and started dragging the spacecraft down. Technically, Soyuz is designed to tolerate a water landing, and crews are trained in water survival in case this becomes necessary. Lessons learned from that landing were applied to later vehicles.

  20. Marshall

    And Dragon is in the water. Congrats all.

  21. Paul

    That NASA requires new hardware is good news for SpaceX. The company can reuse the old hardware and sell it to other customers at a lower price, without violating procurement laws that would require NASA to not be charged less than other customers for the same product (“reused” != “new” so they aren’t the same product.)

  22. vince charles

    19. Calli Arcale Said:
    May 31st, 2012 at 9:04 am

    “This is also informed by the history of spy satellite film capsules; the early Vostok spacecraft was derived from a film capsule. These *have* to land within your territory.”

    You’ve got that backwards in a sense. The film-return spy satellite was overall less demanding than the Vostok mission. So, philosophically and managerially, you could say the Vostok came first, then it became a spy satellite, by adding a camera system.

    Also, the US managed to recover film capsules just fine from international waters. Maybe not the ideal setup, but it happened.

  23. vince charles

    18. gopher65 Said:
    May 31st, 2012 at 8:44 am

    “vince charles: According to a recent interview with one of SpaceX’s managers, NASA required all new hardware for every flight. The contract wasn’t as simple as “they just got paid by the pound”.”

    Yes, I was being a bit poetic there. The point was that a technology demonstration (Dragon reentry and recovery) is a) a bonus to the actual requirements, and b) not much of a demonstration, a half-century after it was already accomplished with cruder technologies.

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