NASA and SpaceX Agree Demo-1 is Go for March 2

NASA and SpaceX Agree Demo-1 is Go for March 2

NASA and SpaceX held a joint press conference this evening to announce that SpaceX’s Demo-1 uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 commercial crew system is go for launch on March 2. Docking with the International Space Station (ISS) is March 3.  The announcement came after a day-long Flight Readiness Review (FRR) that left at least one question unanswered for Russia, one of the ISS partners, but NASA officials are confident they can resolve it before launch.

Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, left no doubt that he is excited to be close to launch.  In fact, “excited” was the word of the day at the briefing, which included three other NASA officials — Kathy Lueders, manger of the commercial crew program; Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager; and Norm Knight, deputy director of Johnson Space Center’s Flight Operations — and SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability.

NASA initiated the commercial crew program in 2010 as part of the FY2011 budget request with the goal of flights beginning in 2015.  The date slipped four years for a variety of reasons including underfunding by a skeptical Congress in the early years.  Being just one week away from the first test launch has been a long time in coming.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on launch pad with crew access walkway. Credit: SpaceX

The outstanding issue that worries Russia is that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (or Dragon-2) does not have a separate software “box” to ensure the spacecraft will not collide with ISS if other systems fail.  Gerstenmaier explained that NASA is confident that redundant systems on the spacecraft are sufficient.  He conceded that Russia raised the issue in December, but he did not follow through with them during the 35-day partial government shutdown and hence the issue arose today.  He is certain they will agree once they have all the relevant information.

Demo-1 now is approved for launch on March 2 at 2:48 am EST from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX leases from NASA.   No people will be aboard, but an instrumented mannequin will make the trip to provide data on the environmental conditions inside the capsule.

Dem0-1 will dock with ISS so NASA is using it to take some cargo up the three-person crew currently aboard, although not as much as a typical cargo mission.  American Anne McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques, and Russian Oleg Kononenko have been there since December 3.

In fact, one takeaway from the briefing is that NASA is not looking at this simply as a test flight, but an actual mission to the ISS and the safety of the ISS crew is paramount.  This is the first Dragon spacecraft that will dock with ISS instead of berthing to it.  The cargo version of Dragon maneuvers close to ISS and then is captured by astronauts using the robotic Canadarm2 and emplaced onto a docking port by ground controllers.  Crew Dragon will dock with ISS using its own propulsion system.  It will dock to an International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was delivered to ISS on a cargo Dragon flight in 2016.  This will be the first time it is used.

The plan is to launch on March 2, dock on March 3, and undock and return to a splashdown in the Atlantic a couple hundred miles off the Florida coast on March 8.  The cargo Dragon flights land in the Pacific off the coast of California, where SpaceX has its headquarters and manufacturing facilities.  Crew Dragon, on the other hand, will be based in Florida, so landing in the Atlantic is more efficient.

The ISS is a busy place these days, with a new ISS crew getting ready to launch on Soyuz MS-12 on March 14 followed by a series of spacewalks and a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo mission.  NASA hopes to squeeze Demo-1 in before the Soyuz MS-12 flight.  If the March 2 launch is delayed, it has backup opportunities on March 5 and either March 8 or 9 (officials at the press conference were not in agreement on the latter date).  The dates were chosen to ensure launch takes place at a time when it is phased with the ISS so it can arrive there within about 24 hours, and for the landing to occur in daylight so reentry and parachute deployment are easily observed.

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