Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX 7 months away from 1st crewed test flight

An artist's rendering of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft on final approach to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX

An artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on final approach to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX continues to take breathtaking leaps in terms of returning the United States’ ability to launch astronauts from American soil. Plans to finalize launch day operations are underway and the NewSpace company is working with NASA to ensure key launch systems are ready to support flight.

The Demo-2 flight is expected to see NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley travel to the International Space Station in the spring of 2019. As was noted on The Verge, this will place crewed test flights for both SpaceX and the other contractor working on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner, around the same time.

Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley stand in front of a mockup of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley stand in front of a mockup of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

One of the key differences between the two is that SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion, while Boeing receiving $4.2 billion. SpaceX completed a pad abort test in 2015, while Boeing hopes to be able to achieve this milestone possibly this year. Boeing’s abort test had been scheduled for this summer, but it was delayed due to a leak of highly-toxic hydrazine from one of the abort engines. The leak occurred after the command was issued to shut down the engines. Several of the abort engine valves failed to fully close.

As early as July 11, 2018, NASA internally believed (as noted on Ars Technica) that Boeing was in the lead in terms of conducting the first uncrewed and crewed test flights. Technical and other issues have seen SpaceX’s Crew Dragon catch up to the aerospace titan’s offering, with Crew Dragon currently scheduled for an April 2019 flight and Starliner set for “mid-2019.” The first unpiloted test flights are currently targeting November 2018 and “early 2019,” respectively.

In terms of Crew Dragon, not everything has gone off without a hitch. The Sept. 1, 2016, explosion that saw the loss of both a Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the $184 million Amos-6 satellite it carried caused NASA officials to raise strong concerns about SpaceX’s fueling procedures. The concerns about the timeline of the crew and fuel loading procedures stem from the Falcon 9 composite overwrap pressure vessels, known as COPVs. It was the COPVs that were determined to be the cause of the Amos-6 accident.

SpaceX plan is to fuel its Falcon 9 after the astronauts have boarded Dragon, the same as the company has done during previous flights with uncrewed payload. While NASA has signed off on this procedure, known as “load and go,” for the time being, it is contingent on the Hawthorne, California-based company successfully completing the space agency’s certification process to prove any potential risks are within acceptable limits.

NASA requires that SpaceX conduct five “crew loading procedures” to help the agency gain a better understanding of the logistics of how this part of the operation would work during an actual mission.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program via an agency-issued release. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

The series of events to ensure that SpaceX’s rocket and spacecraft are ready to support crewed operations is still ongoing. After each milestone SpaceX completes along the way, NASA will “review, verify, and evaluate” the systems that have been tested. Astronauts are currently expected to board Crew Dragon two hours ahead of liftoff with the launch system inactive. Ground crews would then depart and the vehicle’s escape systems would be activated (about 38 minutes before launch). Shortly thereafter, fueling of the rocket would start.

The Falcon 9 uses RP-1 (a highly-refined version of kerosene) along with liquid oxygen as its propellant. This would be loaded into the rocket starting at about 35 minutes before the start of the flight. If anything were to appear to be outside of what is considered normal, launch operations can be stopped automatically. Should anything go awry, the Crew Dragon’s launch escape system could be activated to ferry the astronauts away to safety.

Video courtesy of NASA




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Bottom line is: Falcon 9 can’t deliver the performance it’s designed for (payload to specified orbit, plus recovery of the booster) with a ‘conventional” load-then-board launch procedure. The wait time on the pad will allow too much oxygen to boil off and the density of the remaining LOX to reduce too much, reducing both engine thrust and total performance. In the past, SpaceX has scrubbed launches because of on-pad delays that let this happen. I don’t see “load and go” as any more hazardous than putting astronauts into an orbiter without any crew escape system at all, then launching it with solid rockets that can’t be shut down for two minutes after ignition — and the Space Shuttle program did that for almost thirty years.

How late is spacex commercial crew already? We’ll see how safe it is. Capitalism is not known for its commitment to worker safety.

Hi Donald. Think you need to check your numbers. Elon’s on public record as saying they can launch D2 using conventional loading however that would not be SpaceX normal method and really in the end, you wnat your process flow standardised.

can’t read ‘white font on dark background’. makes my head hurt. sort it out please.

Sept. 3, 2018

Look for the “half moon” symbol to the right of the search “magnifying glass” in the upper right. Click on that and it will switch the background.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider


If you’re comment is related to the densified propellant vs. non-densified performance, then yes there is a hit, however, this is irrelevant to ISS service missions as none of them come close to the performance limits of F9.

All that said, why even comment, SpaceX had one failure related to the load sequence and COPV’s, they have worked the issue, understand it, and have now had many launches since without the issue, they have also re-designed the COPV’s specifically as an additional safeguard against issues.

The Dragon 2 spacecraft finished all certification testing by NASA more than a month ago. It is sitting in Florida waiting to launch. It could fly today if NASA would allow their astronauts to fly aboard it. SpaceX has the most experience of any of the contractors. They have launched the Dragon 1.0 more than a dozen times to the ISS. They know how to do this.

Thanks SpaceX

Apollo 1. Challenger. Columbia.
That is all.

Check out the Soyuz 7K-ST launch. Same situation, fueling the rocket after the crew boarded. Major problems, rocket exploded. Abort rocket system pulled the crew to safety.

James Lunar Miner

Perhaps whatever SpaceX does or doesn’t do concerning safety is mostly irrelevant because of its powerful political friends in high places.

Just prior to the terror attacks of 9/11/2001 (and then our cancelling of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on 12/13/2001 and the beginning of giving serious amounts of taxpayer money to companies like SpaceX to develop Prompt Global Strike and Star Wars II capabilities) we have this news report:

“The United States is exploring the development of a ‘space-bomber’ which could destroy targets on the other side of the world within 30 minutes.”

And, “Plans for the weapon appear to undermine claims that President George Bush’s controversial Missile Defence Screen – dubbed ‘Son of Star Wars’ – is purely defensive.”

And, “As with many such projects, such as the Stealth bomber, the new craft could bypass a Congressional veto by being included in the secret ‘black budget’ of undeclared defence spending.”

From: “Bush plans ‘space bomber’” By Ed Vulliamy 7/29/2001

After 9/11/2001, and our cancelling of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, our future reusable ‘space-bomber’ apparently became a critical government project.

Our Cold War II reusable 150 ton payload robotic BFR Space Bomber, Star Wars II Satellite Launcher, and Super Space Dominance System is coming soon and that is probably the only aspect of ‘safety’ that really counts Inside the Beltway.

James Lunar Miner

Why has SpaceX been getting Prompt Global Strike and Fast Response government military money almost from its beginning and why does it continue to get Air Force money for the development of the BFR’s Raptor rocket engine?

“In interviews and in computerized briefings obtained by NBC News, Air Force planners and others have provided the most complete details yet on the outline of the space bomber program, showing just how it would work, what it could target and what munitions it would use.”

And, “‘It may be 10 to 15 years away, but it fits nicely into (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s revolution in military affairs. It gets into defending the high ground, quick strike capability, quantum leaps in technology and the need to focus on Asia.’”

And, “‘The clandestine aspect is integral to why it would be fun for them,’ said Pike, referring to Pentagon planners. ‘While it’s not black, it is an awful dark shade of gray. The plan appears to be to sort of acquire a momentum outside of public purview.’”

From: ‘Pentagon planning for space bomber’ By Robert Windrem
MSNBC NEWS August 14, 2001

If the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon are all going to be replaced by the BFR, then they are simply learning systems, a justification, or a cover story for getting NASA’s technical help, contracts, and assets and an endless stream of taxpayer money to enable our Cold War II reusable 150 ton payload robotic BFR Prompt Global Strike Space Bomber, Star Wars II Satellite Launcher, and Super Space Dominance System.

“Capitalism is not known for its commitment to worker safety.”

Really? Because killing employees is soooo good for the bottom line?

Look, rocketry is dangerous. The engineers do the best that they can but the only way to remove all risk is to sit in a padded room and do nothing. Although that has been proven bad for ones health.

James Lunar Miner

SpaceX and its goal of cheap access to space was always mainly about Star Wars II, Prompt Global Strike, and Space Dominance right from the organization’s beginning.

“Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said a network of 1,000 missile interceptors deployed on satellite launchers, could be built for $20 billion—not at a cost of hundreds of billions as critics of space weapons assert.”

And, “Griffin, a long-time missile defense expert, said missile threats are increasing and space-based defenses are needed to counter the threats.”

And, “The undersecretary, a former NASA administrator, said a rough estimate for deploying space-based interceptors can be calculated on the $20,000 per kilogram is costs to send material into low earth orbit.”

From: “Pentagon Plans to Deploy Space-Based Missiles”
By Bill Gertz September 5, 2018

Welcome to our Cold War II.

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