Astronauts Could Launch on Crew Dragon 1st Quarter 2020, If …

Astronauts Could Launch on Crew Dragon 1st Quarter 2020, If …

The heads of NASA and SpaceX agreed today that American astronauts could launch to space on an American rocket from American soil in the first quarter of 2020. But that is only if upcoming tests of an abort system and parachutes go as planned and that often is not the case.  The key is taking steps one at a time and making data-driven decisions focused on the safety of the two NASA astronauts who will be aboard.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA today and met with SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk.  It was not Bridenstine’s first trip there — he visited both as a Congressman and after he was appointed to lead NASA — but it was their first meeting after a dust-up late last month.

The day before Musk gave a much anticipated update on his Starship project that is developing a spacecraft to send people beyond low Earth orbit, Bridenstine publicly chided Musk on Twitter about the lateness of SpaceX’s taxpayer-funded commercial crew system.  Bridenstine said he was looking forward to the Starship update, but “In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.”

SpaceX and Boeing both are developing commercial crew systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO), while NASA is building the much larger Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take them beyond LEO to the Moon and Mars.  Bridenstine’s rebuke was surprising since all are far behind schedule and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is further along than the others.  In an interview with CNN immediately after his Starship briefing, Musk shot back that perhaps Bridenstine meant SLS, not Crew Dragon.

The two have been mending fences since.  Bridenstine tweeted last week that he had a good conversation with Musk and would visit SpaceX today. During a press conference this afternoon, both seemed upbeat about the progress SpaceX is making on Crew Dragon, but also careful not to overpromise.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center, speaks to SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk, right, while viewing the OctaWeb, part of the Merlin engine used for the Falcon rockets, during a tour of the SpaceX Headquarters, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Hawthorne, CA. Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

SpaceX and Boeing each must conduct an uncrewed test flight, a test flight of an abort system to ensure astronaut safety if anything goes awry during launch, and a crewed test flight of their systems — Crew Dragon and Starliner — before being certified for operational flights.

SpaceX successfully conducted its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1,  in March, but an April accident during preparation for the In-Flight Abort (IFA) test was a setback.  The company also has encountered challenges with the parachutes needed to return Crew Dragon to its water landing.  Those issues must be resolved before the crewed test flight, Demo-2, takes NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to ISS.

SpaceX is again getting ready for the IFA test.  Musk tweeted earlier this week that the hardware is already at Cape Canaveral, FL.  A static fire test will come first and then launch “probably late Nov/early Dec.”  He said “all testing done in ~ 10 weeks,” which would be mid-December.

Parachute testing is also underway.  SpaceX is working on a Mark 3 parachute that Musk said would be 10 times safer than the Mark 2 it has been testing so far with mixed success.  He said the Mark 3 uses stronger lines made of Zylon instead of nylon and has changes to the stitching pattern where the lines connect to the canopy and loads are concentrated.  The Mark 3’s are the “best parachutes ever, by a lot,” with twice the safety factor of those used for Apollo.

He wants 10 successful parachute drop tests in a row to have confidence in them.  That could happen before the end of the year, “but that’s just a guess.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine climbs out of a mockup of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon during a tour of the SpaceX Headquarters, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Hawthorne, CA. Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Bridenstine agrees.  The parachutes must demonstrate “consistent, repeatable performance” to be qualified.  After the 10 drop tests, “we’ll know how many more we need.”

The point is that although getting hardware to Cape Canaveral is a milestone, it “is not the end state, it’s the beginning,” as Bridenstine said.  The first flight with a crew will take place only after the static fire and IFA tests are successfully completed, the parachutes are qualified, and the resulting data are thoroughly analyzed and understood.

We will take all the data from those tests and make sure we are adequately meeting the margins … and when that is complete then we’ll be ready to launch. What we have to do as an agency is we have to make sure we are taking data and making data-informed decisions to be ready to launch. —  Jim Bridenstine

Musk said SpaceX is working only two technical issues right now — the parachutes and fixes to the propulsion system stemming from the April accident, which was traced to a check valve failure.  But the upcoming tests may reveal other problems and, as Bridenstine said, the data must be studied before committing to launch.

There is some period of time after [the tests] … where SpaceX and NASA and all our partners will need to get together to review all the test data exhaustively, triple and quadruple check everything, and make sure is there anything we overlooked. Is there anything that possibly could improve safety by any amount. And if there is we will delay the launch without hesitation and make those changes.  I want to emphasize this is … not NASA bureaucracy.  It is very important for everyone involved to go through all the data.  Look at it again and look at it again and confirm we’ve done everything possible to be sure the astronauts are safe.  Only at that point would we launch — Elon Musk

Bearing in mind all those caveats, they agreed Demo-2 could take place in the first quarter of 2020.

Boeing has not conducted any of its test flights.  Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who is now at Boeing and will command the Starliner test flight, told the National Academy of Engineering on Monday that their abort test will take place next month at White Sands, NM.   Jeff Foust (@Jeff_Foust) of Space News, who is attending the International Symposium on Personal and Commercial Spaceflight this week, tweeted that Boeing’s John Mulholland said they are planning to conduct the uncrewed test flight, OFT-1, on December 17.

NASA is anxious for the commercial crew systems to start flying because it has not been able to launch anyone into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It must purchase crew transportation services from Russia.  The last seat NASA has is on a Soyuz that will launch in March.  The hope had been that the new U.S. systems would be flying by then, but even with today’s positive outlook, there is no guarantee. Bridenstine confirmed that NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, about flying more U.S. astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said last week that NASA is assessing options, including purchasing another Soyuz seat. Bridenstine put it in a different context, saying that he wants a true partnership where Russian astronauts fly on U.S. vehicles and American astronauts fly on Russian vehicles at no cost.  In fact, Bill Gerstenmaier, the former head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, told Congress last year NASA was in discussions with Roscosmos about doing just that once the U.S. systems are operational.

Cautious optimism was the theme today, though.  Despite all the caveats, Bridenstine said he is “very confident” Crew Dragon will be ready early next year.  “If everything goes according to plan, [Demo-2] would be in the 1st quarter of next year. But remember, there are still things we could learn that could be challenging. … We have to get it right. We are not going to rush it. We want to make sure we get it right.”

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