Crew Dragon undergoes more tests as it progresses to operational readiness
After recently being subjected to electromagnetic interference (EMI) testing, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon inches closer to operational readiness with the completion of two key tests.
In one test, Crew Dragon was subjected to conditions like those it will encounter in space. This was done so as to ensure that the spacecraft can operate in a high-altitude environment. The vehicle is the same one that has been tapped to fly on the company’s first, uncrewed flight — designated Demonstration Mission 1 — in the second half of this year (2018) To help accomplish this, the spacecraft was placed in a vacuum testing chamber at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio.
The chamber, part of the In-Space Propulsion (ISP) Facility at Plum Brook is the only site in the world capable of testing spacecraft, launch vehicle upper-stages, and even rocket engines in conditions similar to those that may be experienced on a typical mission. The chamber, with a usable volume greater than 47,000 cubic feet (1,330 cubic meters), can accommodate engines producing up to 400,000 pounds-force (1,779 kilonewtons) of thrust.
Beyond being able to simulate the atmospheric conditions at such a high altitude, the chamber can also produce temperatures similar to those that an orbiting vehicle might encounter. With a wall embedded with a liquid nitrogen cooling system, the chamber can be chilled to -320 degrees Fahrenheit (-195.6 degrees Celsius) while a quartz heating system can subject hardware to simulate solar heating.
Meanwhile, at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, California, a Crew Dragon test article underwent parachute testing after being dropped from a helicopter.
The test, which was the sixteenth of the capsule’s test regime, verified the parachute system’s ability to slow the spacecraft in the event of a low altitude abort. Immediately after dropping from the helicopter, the spacecraft deployed a series of parachutes — each set designed to perform a different task, from stabilizing the descending capsule to gently lowering the spacecraft to the ground — resulting in the gentle touchdown of the Crew Dragon to the desert floor below.
The first piloted Crew Dragon should fly sometime this year (2018) although that might slip to 2019 with NASA requiring the Block 5 iteration of the Falcon 9 to launch seven times before it is certified to ferry astronauts to space.
SpaceX, along with Boeing, was awarded contracts in September of 2014 to develop Crew Dragon and the CST-100 spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Since the close of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has lacked the ability to launch crews on its own. Instead, the space agency has been dependent on Russian Soyuz-FG rockets, and their accompanying Soyuz spacecraft to reach the orbiting laboratory.
As noted, SpaceX is planning on launching Crew Dragon to the ISS via the NewSpace company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing, meanwhile, has tapped Colorado-based United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V launch vehicle. Starliner is currently planned to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41, whereas Crew Dragon should take to the skies from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.