It's official: the first unmasked flight of the new SpaceX passenger crew, Crew Dragon, is set to begin on March 2nd from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Both NASA and SpaceX have agreed to go on a flight today after they have completed a whole day of review, setting the vehicle ready to see space and travel to the International Space Station. If the capsule succeeds in orbit, SpaceX will be a critical step closer to the position of the first people on board.
This flight, called Demonstration Mission-1 or DM-1, is an important milestone for NASA's Commercial Crew, an initiative to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in private vehicles. Since the end of the Shuttle program, NASA has supported Russia to transport astronauts to and from the low Earth's orbit – a costly arrangement that has limited the types of missions that NASA could perform. But soon, US astronauts could launch US vehicles again, as NASA did during space shuttle.
For the program, both SpaceX and the rival Boeing have developed new capsules to transport NASA astronauts to and from low Earth's orbit. NASA wants the two companies to send these vehicles to space first, empty, before they put people on board. The Boeing vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, is about to fly for the first time in April. But the SpaceX Dragon crew is in Cape Canaveral since December, ready to fly. SpaceX has even looked at the Falcon 9 rocket engines that it intends to use to transfer the capsule to the track. The company just needed NASA approval to do that.
NASA temporarily put it on March 2nd a few weeks ago, and now that the impression was given, SpaceX is just a week away from the big flight. The capsule is about to fly at 2:48 am from NASA's Kennedy Space Center – an early morning start time that is dictated by the position of the International Space Station on the track. If the Dragon crew takes off, it will remain in orbit until the beginning of the morning on Sunday and then try to connect automatically to the space station. He will then remain in the ISS for a week before disconnecting early Friday morning and returning to Earth to collapse in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida.
The flight is short compared to the monthly missions that can be expected to complete a crew. But we hope to provide both NASA and SpaceX with crucial data on how the Dragon Crew holds space – whether or not it is ready to carry passengers. "This vehicle, in it, has many instruments," said Kathy Lueders, during a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center today. "We take many depictions of the vehicle as it returns." The capsule will be weighed as with how it will be a crew dragon when they have astronauts on board and will also carry a test dummy, suitable for one of SpaceX's customized suits.
NASA representatives have said they are still taking this test very seriously, although they are short. The Dragon crew will arrive at the International Space Station, which currently has three people on board, and NASA wants to make sure that crew members are not at risk when the capsule reaches there. "It's a flight test, but it's more than just a flight test," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's native space flight manager. "It's a mission to the International Space Station."
In fact, NASA's international partner, Roscosmos, has expressed some concern about the Crew Dragon software it uses when it reaches the International Space Station. However, Gerstenmaier says he plans to follow Roscosmos this week to make sure he is in the process. "I do not think it will be a problem when we go through the details of why it is safe and we can explain the details of why we are moving forward," he said.
However, Gerstenmaier noted that the flight continues to pose a risk as it is the first launch of this particular vehicle. "I fully expect to learn something on this flight," he said. "I guarantee that everything will not work properly, and that's cool. That's what we want to do."
The DM-1 will also provide NASA and SpaceX with the opportunity to evaluate some Dragon Crew systems that are not yet ready to support passenger flights. One of these is the capsule parachutes, which are used to gently reduce the capsule to water when it returns from space. SpaceX says it has done 17 trials for parachute systems so far, but NASA is still in the process of certifying material for future crew missions.
If DM-1 does not happen on March 2, NASA has the ability to fly either on March 5, 8th or 9th. These days work better as they will allow the Crew Dragon to return to Earth during the day, giving NASA a better view of parachutes. If the DM-1 is somewhat delayed after the 9th, then we will have to wait a little longer as there is an impending Russian Soviet mission that will prevail – one that brings a new crew.
Upon completion of this test flight, SpaceX will then be put on another flight test with the Dragon crew in April, one of which will test the vehicle's emergency system. This security failure feature is meant to be used in case something goes wrong with the missile during the flight and the Dragon crew has to reach the security. During the test, detonators built into the Dragon Crew's hull will shoot, transferring the capsule away from the missile. This is a process similar to the Russian rocket system Soyuz, which saved two astronauts during a fractured flight in October.
If this test goes well, it may eventually be time for the first crew to board the Dragon crew. When this crew flight happens, it is still undecided – a recent report from Reuters noted that there are still many technical issues that NASA needs to revise before the delegation leaves astronauts to fly into Boeing or SpaceX vehicles. And NASA has admitted today that the Dragon Crew, in its current form, is not yet ready for crew missions.
But the non-motorized blade test will open at least the ground for this first crew flight. "I'll tell you, I'm ready to fly," said Lueders.