Last Thursday, a shiny new SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sat on NASA's historic 39A pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, waiting to fire its engines. The exercise was part of a pre-race routine test. What was not routine was the presence of a Crew Dragon capsule on the Black and White Black Hawk. Accommodating up to seven passengers, the domed capsule represents the next major step in SpaceX's development and NASA's dependence on a commercial space industry.
As the rocket's nine Merlin engines for a few seconds brought to life, the plumes sprayed around the launch pad. The test simulated all events of an actual launch, but with the rocket attached to the pad. A static fire test is usually performed one to two weeks before a scheduled start. Although this is just a practice run, it will be scrutinized as it signals the imminent return of crews on American soil. And it means new hardware: the launch pad has a black and white astronaut walkway, the so-called Crew Access Arm, which was installed last summer. A few hours after the test fire, SpaceX tweeted it was a success.
The SpaceX rocket, which was tested on Thursday, was already able to take part in a test flight called Demo Mission-1 or DM-1, which features an improved version of the Dragon Cargo Ship (Crew Dragon) will fly to the space station and dock there. When SpaceX developed its Dragon capsules for the first time, they wanted to transport people. To date, however, each SpaceX Dragon capsule has only carried cargo to and from the International Space Station. The updated version debuted at DM-1 will feature new life support systems for the crew, seats, control panels, and a propulsion system that can keep the crew safe during a launch emergency. Despite these upgrades, DM-1 does not carry people. It is intended to prove that the spacecraft is ready to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station – a premiere for a private company and the first crewing flight of a US vehicle since the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis Eight years ago.
In the years following the end of the US shuttle shuttle program in 2011, NASA selected two companies to provide their future space taxis: SpaceX and Boeing. Over the past five years, companies have developed vehicles that can transport the crew under a $ 6.8 billion contract. Their vehicles – the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner – will be the Agency's main means of bringing astronauts into space. (Currently, NASA and others around the world rely on Russian missiles to send the crew to and from the ISS). It's not a cheap deal, as every NASA headquarters costs around $ 80 million. Both SpaceX and Boeing are hoping for the final launch of humans this year.
The current probable date for the introduction of DM-1 is February 23, but further reviews could effect the end of the month or later. A particular concern of NASA is the way SpaceX propels its missiles. Whenever a Falcon flies, SpaceX quickly heats the vehicle with super-cooled fuel about 30 minutes before take-off, with the payload already attached to the rocket. This process is called "load and go" and saves SpaceX time between starts while increasing performance. (If the fuel is kept at colder temperatures, more of it can fit in the tanks, resulting in increased carrying capacity.) Many industry experts have criticized this as unsafe, arguing that refueling should be completed before the astronauts stop Board board. NASA, however, reviewed the procedures of SpaceX and considered the practice harmless. NASA is calling for an "additional review and demonstration" of the refueling process, meaning that SpaceX must fly seven Falcons and demonstrate that it can safely propel LPG every time SpaceX is allowed to fly. To date, SpaceX has flown four of these missions.
Following Thursday's test, SpaceX and NASA's mission must undergo a final review. When the flight starts, the Dragon crew dock autonomously at the space station – another premiere for SpaceX, as the cargo version is attached via a robotic arm controlled by a station's astronaut. Upon his return to Earth, the vehicle will collapse in the Atlantic Ocean. Assuming everything goes as planned, two astronauts could fly to the space station this summer.