NASA Certifies Crew Dragon for Operational Flights

NASA Certifies Crew Dragon for Operational Flights

Weather permitting, the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will lift off from Kennedy Space Center on Saturday after clearing its Flight Readiness Review (FRR) yesterday. In conjunction with that process, NASA formally certified Crew Dragon as meeting NASA’s technical and safety human spaceflight requirements, the last milestone in the years-long effort to develop and test this “commercial crew” space transportation system.

Kathy Lueders was NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager for most of those years and now is head of NASA’s entire human spaceflight program. At a media briefing, she called it a “big day for us.”  SpaceX demonstrated and NASA verified that the entire system, not just the spacecraft and rocket, but ground systems and recovery operations, everything, meets NASA’s safety standards.  “There’s a big trust factor here.”

The SpaceX system — the Crew Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 rocket — was developed through a Public-Private Partnership where both SpaceX and NASA funded development, but the system belongs to SpaceX. NASA buys crew transportation services from SpaceX rather than owing the system itself. SpaceX can sell services to other customers as well and already has some contracts in place.

This mission for NASA, Crew-1, will deliver four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for a 6-month mission.  Three are from NASA and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).  Japan is one of the partners in the ISS program, along with the United States, Russia, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency.

Crew of Crew-1: Shannon Walker (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Michael Hopkins (NASA), and Soichi Noguchi (JAXA).

A Launch Readiness Review (LRR) will take place tomorrow for the final approval to proceed. Assuming all goes well, launch is scheduled for 7:49 pm on Saturday, November 14.

Hurricane Eta may disrupt that plan, however. The weather forecast is only 60 percent “go” for Saturday or Sunday, the backup launch day.  Not only does the weather have to be favorable at the launch site, but all along the path to orbit since Crew Dragon has an abort system that allows the spacecraft to separate from the rocket and return to Earth anytime during the trip to space.

If launch is on Saturday, the crew will arrive at the ISS just 8.5 hours later, a bonus because of the relative positions of the ISS and the launch site that day.  Due to orbital mechanics, a one-day slip to Sunday means it will take 27 hours instead.

But whenever this particular launch takes place, the key is that the Crew Dragon system is now certified.

Boeing also is building a commercial crew system, Starliner, but it is still in the testing phase. An uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 did not go as planned and Boeing decided it will refly that mission, OFT-2, before putting astronauts onboard for a Crewed Flight Test. The uncrewed and crewed test flights are both required as part of NASA’s certification process. Space X flew theirs in March 2019 (Demo-1) and May-August 2020 (Demo-2).

Steve Stich, who succeeded Lueders as head of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (and was her deputy before that), said yesterday that OFT-2 will not take place until the 1st quarter of 2021. That is another delay.  NASA had been saying the test flight was expected before the end of 2020.

Software problems afflicted OFT and almost led to a catastrophic ending. Boeing announced last week that it has hired Jinnah Hosein as the company’s vice president of Software Engineering. Hosein is very highly respected in software circles and had leadership roles at SpaceX, Tesla, Google, and most recently self-driving vehicle company Aurora.

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