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Next-generation Dragon cargo ships return from the space station



WASHINGTON – The first of SpaceX’s new generation of Dragon cargo ships ended its mission with a splashdown off the coast of Florida on January 13th.

The CRS-21 Dragon spacecraft sprayed into the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa at 1 p.m. 20:26 east. It had disconnected the station a day and a half earlier after the initial plans for a disconnection and splashdown on January 11 were postponed by bad weather.

The dragon brought back to Earth about 2,000 kg of research payload and other cargo from the station. The spacecraft, launched on December 6, brought nearly 3,000 kg of cargo to the station, including the Bishop commercial airlock developed by Nanoracks.

The CRS-21

mission was the first to use the new version of the Dragon cargo hold, based on the vehicle SpaceX developed for the commercial crew program. It includes extra cargo volume and service life on the track, and can be docked and released autonomously, rather than docking at the station’s robotic arm.

The new cargo also sprays down the coast of Florida. Original cargo Dragon missions sprayed down into the Pacific Ocean, southwest of California, and it could take a day or more to return to port. On the CRS-21 mission, time-sensitive cargo from the kite was transported by helicopter to a laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center within six hours.

The kite is the second cargo hold to leave the station in so many weeks. Northrop Grumman’s NG-14 Cygnus spacecraft left the station on January 6, three months after arrival. This spacecraft remains in orbit performing experiments, including a test of combustion in weightlessness, and will re-enter January 26th.

“It simply came to our notice then. This is our new normal, ”said Robyn Gatens, acting ISS Director at NASA’s headquarters, at a January 13 meeting of NASA’s Human Resources and Operations Committee. “Lots of vehicles coming and going, lots of activity at the station.”

The crew of seven people currently at the station, including four NASA astronauts, enables what she called “significantly more crew time for what may be dedicated to exploitation,” or research activities there. She noted that it had long been the goal of the commercial crew program, which allows the station to support seven people instead of the six it could traditionally accommodate, as the only means of travel there was via Russia’s three-person Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA has not yet set an end date for the Crew-1 commercial crew mission currently docked there. Gatens said it will likely end for some time in May, about six months after launch. It overlaps with the next Crew Dragon mission, Crew-2, whose launch is March 30 at the earliest.

However, this date may slip to accommodate the second unmanned test flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. It is scheduled for launch on March 29, though Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA headquarters, said at the same committee meeting that the Starliner launch could move up a few days to March 25.

The CRS-21 Dragon brought a range of scientific experiments back to Earth, ranging from cardiac tissue cells tested at the station to fiber optic cables produced in microgravity. It also brought back a very different commercial payload: 12 bottles of red wine flown to the station in late 2019 by European company Space Cargo Unlimited. The wine, along with 320 extracts of grapes also flown at the station, is sent to a facility in Bordeaux, France to see how they were affected by their time in space. This will include what the company called a “private, organoleptic wine tasting” to compare the wine that was flown in space to the wine that was left on earth.


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