NASA, SpaceX complete Crew Dragon flight readiness review
After years of development, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is nearly ready to fly its first unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station.
On Feb. 22, 2019, NASA and SpaceX conducted a flight readiness review to judge whether SpaceX, the spacecraft, the space station and its crew and NASA are ready for the flight, which is currently scheduled to take place at 2:48 a.m. EST (07:48 GMT) March 2 from Kennedy Space Center’s Space Launch Complex 39A.
“It’s a test flight, but its more than a test flight,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations. “It’s really a mission to the International Space Station. It’s part of the Commercial Crew Program that really gets us ready for the [Demo-2] crew flight that comes up later. This is a critical first step that we do as we move toward returning crew launch capability back here to the U.S.”
Only one action item was noted for the Demo-1 flight. There are still some discussions needed regarding abort software used during approach to the space station. NASA said one ISS partner, Roscosmos, dissented because of potential collision concerns should a computer failure occur.
According to NASA, more than 100 people across the space agency and SpaceX gathered to hear presentations by key personnel from SpaceX, the Commercial Crew Program, and the International Space Station program to certify the mission’s flight readiness.
Up next is a launch readiness review, which is scheduled for Feb. 27. Assuming all action items are worked out, a rollout to Launch Complex 39A is planned for Feb. 28.
Crew Dragon Demo-1 is meant to demonstrate “end-to-end operations” of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon and test docking and landing systems.
Assuming a March 2 launch, Crew Dragon is expected to dock to International Docking Adapter 2 at the forward-end of the Harmony module at about 3:30 a.m. EST (08:30 GMT) March 3. Following several hours of leak checks, hatches between the spacecraft and space station are planned to be opened sometime around 9 a.m. EST (14:00 GMT).
Crew Dragon is said to have about 400 pounds (180 kilograms) of crew supplies and equipment and is expected to return some research samples from the space station at the conclusion of its docked mission.
Under the current plan, undocking is scheduled for around 3 a.m. EST (08:00 GMT) March 8. About four hours later, the spacecraft should perform a deorbit burn to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Florida.
Once back on Earth, the spacecraft will be evaluated and refurbished for use on an in-flight abort test, which is currently targeting sometime in June.
However, during the post-readiness review press conference, it was noted that there are still a number of items that need to be worked in order qualify Crew Dragon to put humans aboard. According to Gerstenmaier, some of those items include continued parachute qualifications, analysis involving carbon overwrapped pressure vessels, etc. But he said these are not unexpected for a new vehicle.
“Every human spaceflight program has risks that are out there,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager. “The way you manage your risks is you identify them and you work them off.”
After everything is checked and verified safe, the first astronauts are slated to board a Crew Dragon for Demo-2, which is expected to fly the same mission profile as Demo-1. That flight is slated for July.
Crew Dragon is one of two human-rated spacecraft being developed by commercial companies under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The other company, Boeing, is building and testing its CST-100 Starliner and also plans to have its first test flight in the coming months.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.