Demo-2 Crew Ready to Fly to ISS, But How Long They’ll Stay Remains TBD

Demo-2 Crew Ready to Fly to ISS, But How Long They’ll Stay Remains TBD

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are ready to take SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on a test drive to the International Space Station (ISS).  The launch is scheduled for May 27 from Kennedy Space Center and they will arrive at ISS the next day. They may stay for one month or as many as four. The duration will not be decided until they are aboard.

This “Demo-2” crewed flight test is the last step towards certifying SpaceX’s commercial crew system for operational use.  NASA has been anxiously awaiting the availability of this and Boeing’s Starliner system to ferry crews to and from ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Credit: SpaceX

The United States has not been able to launch anyone to ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  NASA has been paying Russia to transport crews on its Soyuz spacecraft, but these new U.S. systems were supposed to ready by now and Russia has cut the number of Soyuz launches per year from four to two, reducing the number of crew members that can be aboard ISS.  Only three instead of six are there now.

May 27 will be a momentous day.  Not only will it be the first time since July 2011 that Americans have launched to the ISS on an American rocket from American soil, but it is only the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts have flown on a brand new orbital spacecraft.  Crew Dragon follows in the footsteps of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle.  The last time a new human space vehicle launched from Kennedy Space Center was April 12, 1981 when John Young and Bob Crippen flew space shuttle Columbia into orbit.

The space shuttle was a technological marvel that flew for 30 years, but the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 highlighted its vulnerabilities during launch and landing.  The crew had no means of escape if something went wrong during launch as happened with Challenger. The side-mounted orbiter was exposed to debris falling from the External Tank during launch that could damage critical areas like the leading edge of the wings, with catastrophic results during reentry, Columbia’s fate.  Seven astronauts died in each of those tragedies.

For the new commercial crew systems, NASA picked the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner designs, both of which use capsules that are externally reminiscent of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, although outfitted with state-of-the-art systems.  Crew Dragon uses touchscreen controls and the system is completely automated from launch to docking with the ISS and returning to Earth, although the astronauts can take manual control at certain points if needed.

In fact, SpaceX conducted an uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, last year.  No one was aboard except an instrumented Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD) named Ripley.  SpaceX also has successfully conducted tests of a Pad Abort System and an In-Flight Abort System that are designed to return a crew safely to Earth if there are problems on the launch pad or during ascent to orbit.

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken. Credit: NASA

During one of three Demo-2 press conferences today, Behnken and Hurley, who flew on two shuttle missions each, talked about the comparative safety of this vehicle.  Hurley praised Crew Dragon’s “end-to-end abort capabilities” during ascent compared to the “black zones” for shuttle “where there were scenarios where it didn’t really matter, if you have the right combination of failures, you were likely not going to survive an abort.”  The capsule design in general is a “safer design than a winged vehicle.”  Behnken added that the shuttle was 10 times larger in mass because it carried large cargo as well as the crew.  This vehicle is designed for crew and can use a much smaller rocket which “provides another level of safety.”

Also harkening back to the Apollo era, Crew Dragon will splash down in the ocean.  The airplane-like shuttle orbiter landed on a runway, while Russia’s Soyuz and Boeing’s Starliner land on the ground.  SpaceX’s Benji Reed, Director of Crew Mission Management, said it will take less than an hour to get the crew and the spacecraft aboard the recovery vessel after it hits the water.  The landing zone is in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral.

NASA astronaut Doug Hurley. Credit: NASA

In between launch and landing, the two astronauts will be aboard the ISS, but the duration of their mission is yet to be decided.  NASA Deputy Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stitch said the minimum is about one month and the maximum is 119 days.  The upper limit is set by degradation of Crew Dragon’s solar arrays.

NASA needs to get the spacecraft back on Earth to complete the certification process and allow the first operational flight, Crew-1, to launch and begin regular ISS crew rotation flights.  The four-person crew for that mission is already in training:  NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

But it also needs astronauts on ISS to operate the U.S. segment and conduct scientific experiments. Right now only one U.S. astronaut, Chris Cassidy, is there. In fact, he is due to come home in October, but NASA has not paid for any more seats on Soyuz spacecraft.  It has been negotiating with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, to buy one on the next Soyuz mission in October, but the deal is not done.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today he thinks agreement is just days away, but it underscores why getting Crew Dragon certified is so important.

How long Behnken and Hurley should stay will be a trade-off between those two factors. NASA ISS program manager Kirk Shireman said the plan right now is to keep them on ISS until Crew-1 is almost ready, then bring Demo-2 back and complete the certification process, and launch Crew-1 as soon as possible thereafter.  Decisions will be made as the Demo-2 mission progresses.

NASA and SpaceX are taking extra precautions interacting with the astronauts because of COVID-19.  Crews are required to quarantine for two weeks before a spaceflight in any case, and that will be true this time as well.  They will enter quarantine in Florida on May 16 for the May 27 launch date. If the launch is delayed for weather or other reasons, the backup date is May 30.

Launch is at 4:32 pm ET on May 27.

For Hurley, Demo-2 is a bookend of sorts.  He was the pilot of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, nine years ago.  Now he will be back at Launch Complex 39A on the flight that restores the U.S. ability to launch astronauts to ISS.

Bridenstine noted the historic nature of this mission not only because it inaugurates a new crewed spacecraft, but opens an era where NASA is a customer, not the vehicle’s owner.  Crew Dragon is being developed through a Public-Private Partnership with SpaceX, which owns the system and can use it to fly non-NASA customers into space, too.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell pointed to her throat and said that’s where her heart is already and it will stay there until Hurley and Behnken are back on Earth.

Ordinarily, thousands of people would be on hand to see the launch first hand, but Bridenstine reiterated again that NASA does not want visitors coming to Kennedy Space Center and it will not be open to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic.  “It makes me sad to even say it,” but people should watch from home.

Note: this article was updated to add the word “orbital” in the phrase about this being the first flight of a crew on a new spacecraft since 1981. Some count SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo as new spacecraft even though they did not go into orbit.  In 2004, SpaceShipOne crossed the 100 kilometer altitude mark set by the international aeronautical record-keeping organization FAI as the demarcation point between air and space.  In 2018, SpaceShipTwo crossed the 82 kilometer mark that others use as that demarcation point.  If they are counted, Crew Dragon would be the seventh U.S. human spacecraft instead of the fifth and Demo-2 would be the first flight of a crew on a new U.S. spacecraft since 2018. 

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.