After 31 days of berthed operations, the CRS-14 Dragon from SpaceX wrapped up her mission to the International Space Station. Bringing back thousands of pounds of experiments and equipment for recovery, including Robonaut, the Dragon spacecraft was released from the ISS on Saturday ahead of splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California around 15:00 EDT (19:00 UTC) on Saturday.
CRS-14 Dragon return:
Following a flawless launch on 2 April from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, the CRS-14 Dragon mission successfully rendezvoused and berthed to the International Space Station on 4 April – after which the Station’s crew began offloading the more than 5,800 lbs of equipment, experiments, and supplies aboard the craft.
After these items were removed, Dragon was then packed with its return cargo manifest, including more than 4,000 lbs of stuff that’s no longer needed aboard Station or that must be returned to the ground for repair.
Among the experiments returning to Earth are a metabolic tacking study, APEX-06, and Fruit Fly-03.
Samples returned of the Metabolic Tracking study will help researchers understand the effects of microgravity on the metabolic impact of five different therapeutic compounds and help determine the feasibility of developing improved pharmaceuticals in microgravity using a new method to test the metabolic impacts of drug compounds.
The study’s results could lead to more effective, less expensive drugs here on Earth.
APEX-06 studied the growth, development, and gene expression profiles of seedlings from the monocot Brachypodium distachyon. This investigation will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the molecular and developmental mechanisms that contribute to adaptation to spaceflight conditions and could allow the development of strategies aimed at improving monocot adaptability to spaceflight parameter – which would be beneficial for future human space exploration as monocots provide many food staples here on Earth.
Fruit Fly Lab-03 studied the effects of the space environment on innate immunity, the part of the immune system responsible for quick, non-specific responses to infection. Understanding how the immune system changes in the microgravity environment is critical for future exploration as immune system dysfunction and infections are potential risks for astronauts on long-duration space exploration missions.
Also returning on CRS-14 Dragon were rodents from the Rodent Research experiment launched in December 2017 on Dragon CRS-13 as well as a Space Station crewmember – albeit a robotic one: Robonaut-2.
Robonaut-2 is a humanoid robotic development project by the Dextrous Robotics Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center that launched to the Space Station in February 2011 aboard STS-133, the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery. Since then, Robonaut-2 has performed various tasks to assist Station crews with their daily workloads and has been used to perform cleaning operations – allowing Station schedulers to free up crew time for other, more important tasks.
When launched, there were no plans to return Robonaut-2 to Earth, but when it stopped powering up on orbit and crew troubleshooting could not fix the issue, NASA turned to their ground Robonaut units for answers.
“Engineers have looked at why Robonaut wasn’t able to power up on board,” said Pete Hasbrook, associate program scientist for the International Space Station Program. “Through the other Robonaut units on the ground, they figured out that there’s something in the electrical system, some kind of a short that’s unique to the Robonaut on the Station. So they are pretty confident that when they get it back and they dig into it, they’ll be able to repair it fairly quickly.”
Once repaired, NASA anticipates manifesting Robonaut-2 on a future Commercial Resupply Services mission in about a year’s time. While Robonaut-2 is coming back on a Dragon, it does not necessarily have to re-launch on one as Orbital ATK’s Cygnus craft is also available in the first half of next year to return the mechanical astro-man to Station.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) May 2, 2018
CRS-14 was originally supposed to conclude on Wednesday, 2 May – after 28 days of berthed operations. However, forecasted bad weather in the recovery zone in the Pacific Ocean on the original landing day forced NASA and SpaceX to delay Dragon’s return, granting the craft an extra three days at the Station.
According to Station Daily Reports, the delay allowed the Station crew to “implement changes in the cold stowage plan [Thursday, May 3] to support the return of blood samples on the SpX-14 vehicle.”
Once Dragon safely arrived in the ocean, it will be brought aboard its recovery boat, where its time-sensitive returned experiments will be removed and taken by air to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Dragon and its remaining cargo will first be taken to the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, California, and from there by road to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, facility for a complete offloading of its return cargo manifest and potential refurbishment for possible reuse.
The next resupply/cargo launch to the International Space Station is slated to be the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-9E mission, set to launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Wallops, Virginia, No Earlier Than (NET) 19 May at 05:04-05:09 EDT (09:04-09:09 UTC).
The next SpaceX Dragon mission to the Station, CRS-15, is currently scheduled for NET 28 June.