Demo-2 Still on Track for May 27, Crew-1 Targeted for August 30

Demo-2 Still on Track for May 27, Crew-1 Targeted for August 30

The weather outlook improved slightly today for the historic launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station tomorrow. The first launch of astronauts from American soil since 2011 is scheduled for 4:33:33 pm ET.  Demo-2 is a crewed test flight that, if successful, will lead to regular operational flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA said today the first in that series, Crew-1, is targeted for August 30.

As anyone who follows them knows, space launches can be delayed by a variety of technical and weather factors even at the very last moment, but as of this afternoon, everything is on track for liftoff as planned.  The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable, up from 40 percent yesterday, although that is the forecast only for the launch site.  The weather also must be good all along the rocket’s trajectory up the East Coast and over toward Ireland since the In-Flight Abort system can safely return the crew to Earth if anything goes awry during ascent.

Demo-2 is the crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.  An uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, was successfully completed in March 2019.

SpaceX uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, arriving at the International Space Station, March 2019. Credit: NASA

The Demo-2 (DM-2) launch will take place from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX leases from the agency.  It is the same historic site where Saturn V rockets left for the Moon and many space shuttles departed for Earth orbit, including the first, STS-1, in 1981 and the last, STS-135, in 2011.

SpaceX produced a short video honoring its past and signaling its future.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is sitting atop a Falcon 9 rocket at the launch pad right now.  It will take two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, to the International Space Station (ISS) for a visit of between 6 and 16 weeks. If liftoff goes on time, they will arrive about 19 hours later, on Thursday at 11:39 am ET.

Both are experienced astronauts.

NASA astronaut Doug Hurley. Credit: NASA

Hurley is the Demo-2 Spacecraft Commander. He flew two space shuttle missions to the ISS: STS-127 in 2009 and STS-135 in 2011.  He was the pilot for STS-135, the final space shuttle mission. He has accumulated 683 hours in space so far. Before joining NASA, he was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the Marine Corps (retired, 2012).  Born in Endicott, NY, he considers Apalchin, NY his home. He has a B.S. in civil engineering from Tulane University. While in the Marines, he was a Naval Aviator and attended Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, MD and later flew the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.  He is married to Karen Nyberg, a former astronaut who retired in March. They have a 10-year old son, Jack.

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken. Photo credit: NASA

Behnken is the Demo-2 Joint Operations Commander. An Air Force Colonel, he  flew on two space shuttle flights to the ISS: STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010. He accumulated 708 hours in space and more than 37 hours on spacewalks.  From St. Ann, MO, he has a B.S. in physics and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Washington University; and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology.  He attended Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, CA and was assigned to the F-22 Combined Test Force where he was lead Flight Test Engineer for the 4th F-22.  He is married to NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, who flew on STS-125.  They have a 6-year old son, Theo.

All four astronauts joined NASA in the class of 2000.

How long Hurley and Behnken will remain on ISS will be decided as the mission progresses based on factors including how well the spacecraft’s solar panels stand up to the space environment and weather on the ground.  The solar panels are rated at 119 days, but if they withstand exposure to radiation better than expected, the crew could stay longer.  Another factor, however, is that NASA and SpaceX need to get the spacecraft back on Earth so it can be studied to ascertain its flightworthiness and win certification for operational missions.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference today that NASA and SpaceX are targeting August 30 for that first operational mission.  To be sure they have enough time to certify Crew Dragon, they may make a quick decision to bring the crew back if a good weather opportunity arises.  Crew Dragon will land in the ocean just as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo did.

President Trump and Vice President Pence will be at the launch tomorrow.  Asked how everyone will avoid “launch fever” with such high profile guests on hand, Bridenstine said NASA has been “diligent about making sure people have the authority to say no.”

On top of the VIP guest list, NASA is anxious for this mission to succeed.  It has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.  NASA has been paying Russia to transport crews on Russian Soyuz spacecraft while SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew systems have been under development.  Russia cut the number of Soyuz launches from four to two per year in anticipation that the U.S. systems would be ready, but they are years late. Right now, only one U.S. astronaut and two Russia cosmonauts are aboard the ISS because of the limited number of flights.  The typical ISS crew complement is six.

That does not mean launch will take place if everything is not in order, however.  Bridenstine pointed out that NASA just purchased a seat on a Soyuz flight in October just in case Demo-2 or Crew-1 are delayed.

“We did that intentionally because we want people to feel free to say no and not feel any pressure to go on this launch.  I texted Bob and Doug yesterday and I said to them very clearly, if you want me to stop this thing for any reason, say so, and I will stop it in a heartbeat if you want me to.  They both came back and said ‘we are go for launch.’ … Part of my job as NASA Administrator is to make sure people understand that their safety is our highest priority and give everybody in the loop permission to say no before we launch.” — Jim Bridenstine

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, a former astronaut himself, seconded that.

I know the launch team.  I know the commercial crew program.  I know the folks that are on console. And this is a test flight.  And they are going to make sure it’s right before they launch.  They’re not concerned about who’s here to see it. They’re concerned about doing their jobs and doing it correctly.  They’ve practiced this. They’ll do the right thing. — Bob Cabana

The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership (PPP) where the government shared development costs with its two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing. None of those parties specified the sharing arrangement.  Years ago a top NASA official said NASA was paying 80-90 percent.  Still, the cost to the government is thought to be much less than if traditional cost-plus contracts were used.  Some argue the government saved billions with the PPP arrangement.

In return, NASA guaranteed to purchase a certain amount of services with that expectation that the companies would find other customers to close the business case.  That means SpaceX, not NASA, owns the rocket and spacecraft.  NASA is just a customer, but SpaceX must meet contractual requirements to demonstrate the system is safe.

Tomorrow it will be SpaceX, not NASA, that decides whether or not to launch.  Cabana made it clear the SpaceX launch director will give the final go.

Asked if NASA could intervene if it felt that was necessary, Bridenstine said yes. He added, though, that the whole point of doing this as a PPP is for NASA to be just one of many customers, so the goal is for SpaceX to do everything without NASA.

“But if we see something we disagree with, we have the right to intervene.”

SpaceX has already announced deals with Space Adventures and a company called Axiom that is building a module to attach to the ISS and eventually fly freely.

The commercial crew program is part of NASA’s goal to commercialize low Earth orbit, with private sector space stations someday replacing the ISS.

The concept of using PPPs to build systems to replace the space shuttle began in the George W. Bush Administration when Mike Griffin was NASA Administrator.  Bush announced in 2004, a year after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy that killed all seven astronauts aboard, that the shuttle program would be terminated after ISS construction was completed.  That meant NASA had to find another way to get cargo and crews to the space station.

The Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program was established in 2005 to develop cargo systems.  SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Northrop Grumman) succeeded in developing Cargo Dragon and Cygnus respectively.  President Barack Obama built on that nascent success with the commercial crew program, announced in February 2010 as part of the FY2011 budget request.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden fought hard to convince a skeptical Congress it would work.  Although the program has not yet demonstrated success — hopefully that will happen beginning tomorrow — NASA has adopted the model for its Artemis program to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024 under Bridenstine’s leadership.

Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden, USMC (Ret.), former NASA Administrator, former NASA astronaut. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Bridenstine said the PPP history, over three presidential administrations, demonstrates what can be accomplished when there is “continuity of purpose.”  He particularly praised Charlie Bolden’s work during the eight years he headed NASA in the Obama Administration.  Bridenstine was a Member of Congress from Oklahoma in many of those years.

Charlie Bolden did absolutely magnificent work as the NASA Administrator at a time when this particular program … didn’t have a lot of support in Congress.  And Charlie Bolden, who is a NASA astronaut and an American hero, he’s an F-18 pilot … did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground, get it going, and here we are, all these years later, having this success.”

A Trump appointee, Bridenstine added that NASA’s human spaceflight program under President Trump has really “blossomed.”  Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1 directed NASA to restore the goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the Moon instead of going directly to Mars as Obama wanted.

SpaceX tweeted a short video of Crew Dragon at the end of the crew access arm through which Hurley and Behnken will walk tomorrow afternoon on this historic mission.

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