It’s “Go” for Demo-2 Launch on May 27

It’s “Go” for Demo-2 Launch on May 27

The Demo-2 crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon cleared its Flight Readiness Review (FRR) today.  NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said the decision was unanimous.  The mission still must pass a Launch Readiness Review on Monday and NASA and SpaceX officials insist they will launch only when they are ready, but the outlook for a May 27 launch at 4:33 pm ET is quite favorable.  May 30 is a backup launch date.

The FRR began yesterday and extended into today as the review panel heard from NASA and SpaceX engineers and managers about all Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon systems and subsystems.

Jurczyk chaired the FRR.  He is the top civil servant at NASA and third highest ranking person (the Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, and Deputy Administrator, Jim Morhard, are political appointees.)  Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability, was the top SpaceX official.

This was the opportunity to discuss any issues of concern to anyone associated with the mission, including its visit to the International Space Station (ISS).  ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.  The two Demo-2 astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will remain aboard ISS for at least one month and as many as four.

According to a NASA spokeswoman, these offices got a vote in today’s go/no-go poll.

  • Program Manager, Mission and Program Integration Contract
  • Program Manager, Cargo Mission Contract
  • Program Manager, ISS Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract
  • Program Director, EVA Space Operations Contract
  • Manager, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX)
  • Canadian Space Agency
  • Roscosmos (Russian space agency)
  • European Space Agency
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
  • Italian Space Agency
  • Manager, Commercial Crew Program
  • Director, Commercial Spaceflight Development
  • Manager, ISS Program
  • Director, Johnson Space Center
  • Director, Kennedy Space Center
  • Director, Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Director, Stennis Space Center
  • NASA Chief Health and Medical Officer
  • NASA Chief Engineer
  • NASA Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer
  • NASA Associate Administrator

During a post-FRR press conference this afternoon, Jurczyk said one issue that received a lot of attention is Crew Dragon’s parachutes that will gently land Crew Dragon in the Atlantic Ocean, reminiscent of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo landings. After a number of failures, SpaceX developed a completely new “Mark 3” design that has been tested successfully.  Benji Reed, SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management, showed a video of recent tests.

Jurczyk said there were fewer tests than usual for a qualification program, but in the end the review board had “high confidence” the parachutes will work as planned.

Socially-distanced NASA and SpaceX officials in an otherwise empty Kennedy Space Center (KSC) press site during a post-Flight Readiness Review (FRR) briefing for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, May 22, 2020. NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, who chaired the FRR, is at the far left; NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the far right. At the table, L-R: NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, NASA ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman,  SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management Benji Reed, and NASA/JSC Deputy Director Flight Operations Norm Knight.  The logos on the floor cover the area where members of the press ordinarily would sit. Screengrab.

He cited two other “special topics” that were discussed.

One was a “performance shortfall” of a fire suppression system in the Crew Dragon. The NASA/SpaceX team “analyzed both the hazards there as well as the ability of the system to suppress the fire and we deem the risk to be very low there.”

The other stemmed from an accident in April 2019 where a Crew Dragon spacecraft — the very one successfully flown to the ISS in the Demo-1 uncrewed flight test a month earlier — was destroyed in preparation for an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test. SpaceX determined the root cause was a “slug” of nitrogen tetraoxide (NTO) that was driven through a check valve and caused the failure of a titanium component.

Jurczyk cited the “tremendous amount” of testing by SpaceX since then “that gives us confidence that we have a system that’s going to perform.”  The IFA test ultimately took place successfully in January 2020.

Still, the April 2019 event sent a chill through the commercial crew program.  Program manager Kathy Lueders was asked today whether she thought at the time they would be launching Demo-2 just over a year later. She replied that one should never underestimate the value of a failure to cause a “step function to move you to the next level,” nor “how much work it is to overcome it.”  But it was a “blessing” and “we learned a ton” about the system.

“I probably wasn’t thinking I was going to be flying in a year, but you … can never sell this NASA and SpaceX team short.  They’ve always accomplished miracles for me, and I’m very, very proud of them right now.”

A NASA photo yesterday showed Lueders signing a “Commercial Crew Program Human Rating Certification Package – SpaceX.”  Jurczyk clarified today that is an interim certification for this specific mission, which is a flight test.  The first operational mission, Crew-1, will take place later this year if all goes well.  A final human spaceflight certification will be issued after Demo-2 returns to Earth and before Crew-1 launches.

In addition to the FRR, today was also the day for the static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch Behnken and Hurley into space.  It was successful.

Next is the Launch Readiness Review on Monday.  If all is in order, including the weather, the first launch of astronauts into orbit from American soil since 2011 will take place on Wednesday at 4:33 pm ET and Behnken and Hurley will dock with the ISS on Thursday at 11:29 am ET.

Crew Dragon is part of NASA’s “commercial crew” program, a public-private partnership where the government and the private sector share the costs of development in return for a guaranteed government purchase of services.  SpaceX owns Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon. NASA is just a customer, but SpaceX must meet contractual requirements to demonstrate the system is safe for any astronauts NASA wants to fly, which includes those from the ISS partners.

Boeing is also building a commercial crew system, CST-100 Starliner.  NASA has never revealed how much SpaceX or Boeing have invested.

SpaceX’s Reed was asked that question today. He demurred, insisting it is proprietary information “but I can tell you absolutely that SpaceX has invested heavily into this partnership. … We’ve put a lot of time and energy and finances” into it.

Jurczyk was a last minute replacement to chair the FRR, which until Monday was to be led by Doug Loverro.  Asked if he felt he was ready to step in on short notice, he confidently said yes because for the past two years he has chaired many reviews of the commercial crew program as chair of the agency’s Program Management Council.  He also attended reviews by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and other groups. “I was well prepared.”

Loverro was asked to resign on Monday.  The details remain unclear, but were not related to this launch.  Loverro told he has no regrets, a sentiment he reiterated in a farewell tweet today.

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