It's been a long time, but NASA's commercial crew program is about to launch. SpaceX plans to schedule the first test flight of its crewed Dragon capsule next month. This came after a series of setbacks as both SpaceX and Boeing underwent the testing and review process that will eventually return manned spacecraft to the US.
SpaceX confirmed last week that the Falcon 9 rocket completed a static fire test that will drive the Dragon II capsule into orbit. In a static fire test (see video below), the rocket remains tied to the launch tower so it can not go anywhere while the engines are flashing. Next month, the rocket can shoot for the moon. Well, for the International Space Station ISS.
The Dragon II capsule (see above) is a modified version of the kite that has flown unchecked cargo missions to the ISS in recent years. However, NASA's test and certification process is understandably much stricter than the freight contract. SpaceX has experienced some boot failures, but manned flights include additional security measures such as a launch abort system. NASA was initially reluctant to allow astronauts to board the spacecraft while refueling. This is the preferred method of SpaceX. However, the agency declined for further design reviews.
The February test will cover all parts of a typical mission to the ISS to bring the crew back and forth. The mission, known as the SpX-DM1, will begin with a take-off from Historic Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center. The Falcon 9 booster will clear the second stage before returning to Earth (it is unclear whether SpaceX will attempt to land this booster.)
Static fire test completed – The goal is the February launch of the historic Launch Complex 39A for the first demonstration flight of Crew Dragon! pic.twitter.com/sJF24U3UOM
– SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 25, 2019
The Dragoncapsule will enter orbit and perform automated docking for several weeks. Eventually it will re-enter the atmosphere and splash in the sea. SpaceX has been working on the landing technology with drives, but NASA is not letting the company use that for crew flights. The company plans to use this booster again later for a flight departure test.
SpaceX had originally targeted the DM1 launch in December 2016. Delays have repeatedly pushed back the commercial crew program, and time is running out. NASA will only have seats on board Russian Soyuz capsules by the end of the year. Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule is somewhat delayed due to a fuel leak detected during testing last year. Boeing hopes his first demonstration flight will take place in March. Crew flights with both vehicles could start already this summer.