SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will depart the International Space Station and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean early tomorrow morning. It has been paired with the space station since Sunday, when it made its first docking under its own power after a successful Saturday launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
This final phase of the Demo-1 mission will continue studying Crew Dragon’s new build. That includes testing an upgraded parachute system to land the craft more gently than its cargo version. The parachute system in particular will be under close scrutiny on Friday morning, since it will eventually ferry human passengers.
The Dragon capsule that flew this week is not the final version that will fly in future tests, but it is close. At a pre-launch briefing, SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann said that the company is still in the final stages of development on Crew Dragon’s internal controls. Since the only passengers on Demo-1 were a dummy named Ripley, an Earth plushie, and cargo, the controls weren’t necessary for this flight. But soon real-life astronauts may take the helm.
If all goes well with the return tomorrow, SpaceX should proceed to Demo-2 in July, which will carry two astronauts into space on a private craft for the first time. Before that, NASA and SpaceX will also run an abort test with the craft’s “Super Draco” thrusters. They’re designed to ensure the capsule can safely get humans back to Earth even if something goes wrong during or immediately after launch.
While SpaceX usually lands in the Pacific Ocean to be closer to its base in California, Crew Dragon will splash down tomorrow in the Atlantic, with a full test run of the medical personnel that are always on stand-by for crew recovery after space mission landings.
NASA will be livestreaming the event, starting with the ISS separation at 2:30 a.m. EST on Friday, March 8. There will be a break in coverage, and NASA TV will resume at 7:30 a.m. for the landing coverage.