It's official: The first unrestrained flight of SpaceX's new passenger capsule, the Crew Dragon, will launch on March 2nd in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Both NASA and SpaceX agreed to continue the flight today after a full day of verifications and finding that the vehicle was ready to see space and travel to the International Space Station. When the capsule has successfully made it to orbit, SpaceX is taking a decisive step toward getting the first humans aboard the spacecraft.
This flight, designated a Mission-1 or DM-1 demonstration, marks an important milestone for the NASA Advertising Crew Program, an initiative to bring NASA astronauts in private vehicles to the International Space Station. Since the end of the shuttle program, NASA has relied on Russia to bring and retrieve their astronauts to Earth orbit, an expensive arrangement that limits the types of NASA missions. But soon American astronauts could be back on US vehicles, as NASA did in the Space Shuttle era.
Both SpaceX and the rival Boeing have developed new capsules for this program to transport NASA astronauts from and around the Earth's near-Earth orbit. NASA wants the two companies to send these vehicles into space before they bring people aboard. The Boeing vehicle, the CST-1
NASA set March 2nd a few weeks ago, and now it's okay, SpaceX Only a week away from the big flight. The capsule flies at 02:48 CET from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an early launch time dictated by the position of the International Space Station in orbit. When the crew then lifts Dragon off the ground, he stays in orbit early Sunday morning and then tries to automatically dock at the space station. She will then spend a week on the ISS before separating off early Friday morning and returning to Earth to splash in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida.
The flight is brief compared to the months-long missions expected to be completed by a crew spacecraft. However, hopefully it will provide both NASA and SpaceX with important data on how Crew Dragon is in space – and whether or not it is ready to take passengers. "This vehicle has many tools," Kathy Lueders said today at a Kennedy Space Center press conference. "We get a lot of pictures of the vehicle when it comes back." The capsule will be weighted much like a Crew Dragon when astronauts are on board, and will also carry a test dummy suitable for use in any of SpaceX's custom flight suits.
NASA officials emphasized that they still take this test very seriously, even if it's short. The Crew Dragon will arrive at the International Space Station ISS, which currently has three people, and NASA wants to make sure that these crew members are not in danger when the capsule arrives there. "It's a test flight, but it's more than a test flight," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's NASA space flight program administrator, at a press conference. "It's a mission of the International Space Station."
In fact, NASA's international partner, Roscosmos, expressed some concern over Crew Dragon's software that he uses when approaching the International Space Station. However, Gerstenmaier says he intends to continue with Roscosmos this week to make sure they are on board with the procedure. "I do not think it will be a problem as soon as we go over the details of the safety issue and we can explain why we are moving forward," he said.
However, Gerstenmaier believes that the flight still carries some risk, as this will be the first launch of this particular vehicle. "I expect to learn something on this flight," he said. "I guarantee that everything is not working properly, and that's cool. That's exactly what we want to do.
NASA and SpaceX are also testing some Crew Dragon systems that are not yet ready to support passenger flights with the DM-1. One of these is the parachutes of the capsule, which gently lower the capsule into the water as it returns from space. SpaceX says it has completed 17 parachute tests to date, but NASA is still certifying the hardware for future missions.
If DM-1 does not take place on March 2nd, NASA has the option to fly either on the 5th, 8th or 9th of March. These days work best as Crew Dragon can return to Earth during the day, allowing NASA to better see the parachutes. If DM-1 is delayed somewhat after the 9th, it will have to wait a little longer, as a Russian Soyuz mission is about to take precedence – one that will accommodate a new crew.
After completing this test flight, SpaceX will conduct another flight test in April with Crew Dragon, who will test the vehicle's emergency stop system. This failsafe function should be used when something goes terribly wrong with the rocket during the flight and the Crew Dragon has to move to safety. During the test, crewed engines are fired into the Crew Dragon fuselage, leading the capsule away from the missile. It is a process similar to the emergency demolition system aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket, which rescued two astronauts during a failed flight in October.
If this test is successful, it may finally be time for the first crew to board the Crew Dragon. When this crew-manned flight will take place is still undecided – a recent report from Reuters (19459024) stated that there are still many technical things that NASA first needs to review before the agency's astronauts either use Boeing – or SpaceX vehicles fly. NASA today admitted that the crew Dragon in its current form is not yet ready for occupation.
But the unrestrained flight attempt will at least pave the way for the first crew flight. "I'll tell you, I'm ready to fly now," said Lueders.