NASA Safety Panel Agrees Demo-2 Launch Date Feasible, NASA Wants Public to Stay Away

NASA Safety Panel Agrees Demo-2 Launch Date Feasible, NASA Wants Public to Stay Away

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said today they consider the May 27 launch date for SpaceX’s first crewed launch to the International Space Station (ISS) to be “feasible.”  Also today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine encouraged everyone to watch the launch virtually, not travel to Kennedy Space Center even though this is the first launch of astronauts to the ISS from the United States in nine years.

ASAP meets quarterly, but panel chair Patricia Sanders explained they were not able to interact with NASA officials as usual because of COVID-19. In particular, they had no meetings with the Commercial Crew Program, but expect to in early May during a “part 2” of this quarter’s review.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX are getting ready to launch the crewed flight test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system, which is being developed through a public-private partnership.  SpaceX owns the spacecraft and launch vehicle.  NASA is only buying services, but SpaceX must meet a series of contractual requirements to demonstrate the system is safe.

NASA and SpaceX have set May 27 as the launch date for the crewed flight test, Demo-2, the final step toward certifying the system for operational use.  Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will be aboard.  NASA has not decided how long they will remain on ISS.  Originally planned for a week or so, the agency has hinted it may extend the test flight for two-three months because only three people instead of six are on ISS now because of delays in development of this and Boeing’s Starliner system.

Based on what they know now, ASAP thinks the May 27 launch date is feasible even though some technical issues are still to be resolved.  When to launch, and how long the mission should last, are decisions NASA will have to make while balancing any remaining risks in the vehicle’s design and implementation, of the COVID-19 environment, and of the need to keep the ISS appropriately staffed, Sanders said.  NASA is “well aware of and prepared to address” those risks and ASAP will follow its actions in the weeks ahead.

One concern was the failure of one of the nine Merlin engines in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket during a launch on March 18.  The other eight were sufficient to put the payload, 60 SpaceX Starlink satellites, into the correct orbit, but the company and NASA have been investigating what went wrong.  SpaceX had a completely successful launch yesterday of another set of Starlink satellites.  SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk tweeted that the March 18 failure was due to cleaning fluid trapped in a sensor that ignited.

In a separate meeting later in the day on how NASA is helping the nation respond to COVID-19, Bridenstine was asked about the impact of COVID-19 on Demo-2 preparations. He said people working on the mission are separated into shifts of four at a time and provided with protective equipment.  In mission control, personnel are separated as much as possible.  The crew is following standard pre-flight quarantine procedures.

He reiterated that if anyone feels uncomfortable working on-site, they should speak up.  “We want people to be as safe as if they were at home.”  He spoke with KSC Director Bob Cabana about this last week who said few concerns have been raised.

Demo-2 will be the first launch of astronauts from American soil since the last space shuttle flight in 2011.  Ordinarily, it would attract many thousands to KSC and surrounding areas to watch the historic launch, but “we’re asking people not to come” in person, but to watch online because of COVID-19, Bridenstine said.  KSC will be closed to the public.

As for Boeing’s Starliner, Sanders said “much remains to be resolved” before it is certified for crew flights.  Starliner encountered a number of  problems during its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December and Boeing recently decided to refly the OFT to demonstrate the problems have been fixed.  Sanders praised the decision, but said it was not enough. NASA must ensure Boeing’s fundamental technical, organizational and cultural shortcomings exposed by the investigation have been “fully addressed and mitigated before launching crews.”  She believes that is NASA’s intent, but ASAP will continue pushing the agency on that score.

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