SpaceX readies Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The journey to return human spaceflight to U.S. soil is set to cross another milestone as SpaceX prepares to launch the first Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Liftoff is officially set for 2:49 a.m. EST (07:49 GMT) March 2, 2019, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA and SpaceX completed a launch readiness review on Feb. 27, and concluded the mission was “go” for launch. The weather is predicted to have an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions with the primary concerns being cumulus and thick clouds.
Editor’s note: You can catch SpaceFlight Insider’s live broadcast for the mission at the end of this article or on our Mission Monitor page.
The flight—dubbed Demo-1—will be the first demonstration mission for SpaceX as it looks to eventually carry humans to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Demo-1 represents one of the final remaining hurdles for SpaceX as the company looks to launch astronauts to the space station—something currently only provided by Russian vehicles—from the United States.
Indeed, NASA and its international partners have relied on Russia and its Soyuz launch system to ferry crew to and from the orbiting outpost since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles at the conclusion of STS-135 in 2011.
“It’s exciting to see us get ready for this test flight,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, in a press conference following the mission’s flight readiness review on Feb. 22.
For its part, SpaceX has been set on human spaceflight since its inception.
“Human spaceflight is really the core mission of SpaceX,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, in the same conference. “There’s nothing more important to us than this endeavor, and we really appreciate the opportunity from NASA.”
Koenigsmann said during that flight readiness review that a test dummy—or Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD) as it’s professionally described—wearing a SpaceX spacesuit would fly aboard Crew Dragon for Demo-1 so that NASA and SpaceX can collect data on a human analog.
The ATD has a name just like the mannequin in the Tesla Roadster that flew aboard the inaugural Falcon Heavy flight in 2018. The Roadster mannequin was named “Starman,” while the one aboard Crew Dragon is named “Ripley” after Ellen Ripley, the fictional main character of the Alien film series.
While the Crew Dragon spacecraft being used for Demo-1 is essentially identical to what will fly astronauts on the first crewed mission, Demo-2, NASA believes there is still much to be learned from the new vehicle.
“I would say the vehicle is not fully qualified,” Gerstenmaier said when asked about Crew Dragon on this mission. “So, in other words, we haven’t set the total envelope of where some of the hardware can operate and how it can be used.”
Nevertheless, Gerstenmaier said that this was typical of a vehicle at this stage of development, and that NASA and SpaceX would work through any complications uncovered on this shakedown flight.
Demo-1 flight plan
Following liftoff, Crew Dragon is expected to be placed into a preliminary orbit about nine minutes later. It should separate from the rocket’s second stage about two minutes later before opening its nosecone to reveal its docking port.
Meanwhile, the first stage used for the launch is expected to make a landing downrange on SpaceX’s Automated Spaceport Drone Ship named “Of Course I Still Love you.” That landing is expected to take place about 30 seconds after the second stage reaches orbit.
Under the current plan, within about 27 hours Crew Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the ISS and dock to an international docking adapter (itself brought to the ISS aboard the cargo Dragon several years ago) located on the forward end of the Harmony module where the Space Shuttles used to dock. Docking is targeted for about 6 a.m. EST (11:00 GMT) March 3.
Less than 3 hours later, the hatch between the ISS and Crew Dragon is expected to be opened by the Expedition 58 crew, which includes Russian cosmonaut and station Commander Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
Even though it is primarily a demonstration mission to certify Crew Dragon and its systems, NASA has also chosen to take advantage of the flight to have some cargo delivered to the station.
Among the manifest are some radiation dosimeters, sample return bags, and a variety of crew supplies. The agency also plans to make use of the vehicle’s ability to return cargo to Earth, in this case some experiment samples and a failed spacesuit component.
NASA is planning on closing the hatch to Crew Dragon at about 12:25 p.m. EST (17:25 GMT) March 7 before the spacecraft undocks at about 2:31 a.m. EST (07:31 GMT) March 8.
Following a nominal departure from the outpost, Crew Dragon is expected to use its thrusters to perform a roughly 10-minute deorbit burn just over five hours later at 7:50 a.m. EST (12:50 GMT) with a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Florida less than an hour later.
More to do before Demo-2
Following the conclusion of Demo-1, SpaceX plans to conduct an in-flight abort test to validate the vehicle’s capability to escape a launch mishap.
Tentatively scheduled for June 2019—though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that it could take place as early as April—that test is expected to see the Crew Dragon from Demo-1 launched atop the Falcon 9 first stage used for the recent Nusantara Satu mission with an abort sequence triggered during the most stressful portion of a flight profile.
Should no significant issues arise from either test, SpaceX plans to launch the first crewed mission no earlier than July 2019. That flight, designated Demo-2, is expected to see NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken board the vehicle, travel to the ISS and spend eight days docked with the outpost before returning home.
First, though, SpaceX must complete this first demonstration mission before NASA will allow crew to fly.
“This is an absolutely critical first step that we do as we move towards eventually returning crewed launch capability back here to the U.S.,” Gerstenmaier said.
Coverage of the Demo-1 mission will be provided on NASA’s YouTube channel. Additionally, SpaceFlight Insider is planning a live broadcast of the launch, which will be provided on this page and our mission monitor page. Check back here for updates.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
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.