SpaceX Demo-1 Go for Launch Saturday

SpaceX Demo-1 Go for Launch Saturday

NASA and SpaceX confirmed today that the Demo-1 uncrewed test launch of SpaceX’s commercial crew system remains go for launch very early Saturday morning.  Weather is 80 percent favorable, but if anything goes awry, March 5 is a backup opportunity. Whenever it goes, it will be a historic step towards resuming the U.S. ability to launch people into space after an 8-year hiatus following termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  NASA has been relying on Russia to take its astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) since then.

NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders laid out the objectives of this test launch during a press briefing at Kennedy Space Center today.

Source: NASA

SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann showed the mission’s timeline for launch at 2:49 am ET Saturday, March 2.

Source: SpaceX
Source: SpaceX

SpaceX has been launching a cargo version of its Dragon capsule to the ISS since 2012, but this is the first flight of “Crew Dragon,” which can accommodate people as well as cargo.  It also will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  As with most Falcon 9 launches, SpaceX plans to return the first stage to a landing on an autonomous drone ship stationed off the coast of Florida.

During a briefing last week, Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said that Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, one of the partners in the ISS program, had concerns because Crew Dragon does not have a separate software “box” to ensure the spacecraft will not collide with ISS if other systems fail.  He expressed confidence that once Roscosmos had all the relevant information, it would agree the system is safe.

NASA ISS Deputy Program manager Joel Montelbano confirmed today that NASA and Roscosmos reached agreement.  It includes closing additional hatches and having the three ISS crew members ready to move into the Soyuz spacecraft — which serves as a lifeboat — if certain conditions develop.  American Anne McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques, and Russian Oleg Kononenko are on board.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft will carry an instrumented mannequin outfitted with sensors to measure environmental factors like force and acceleration that humans would experience.  Koenigsmann revealed today that it is named Ripley after the character in Alien played by Sigourney Weaver.  He added that there are cameras inside the spacecraft to record what transpires, so a video likely will be released at some point.

Ripley will not be the only source of data.  “We have instrumented the crap out of this vehicle,” Lueders exclaimed.

If all goes according to plan, Demo-1 will dock with the ISS on Sunday morning about 6:00 am ET.  It will remain there until Friday, March 8, and then return to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.  NASA and SpaceX will evaluate the data and determine when Demo-2 will launch. That is the test flight with a crew and is currently targeted for July.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Crew Dragon spacecraft on top at Launch Complex 39A in preparation for Demo-1 launch. Feb. 28, 2019. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s competitor for the commercial crew program is Boeing.  Each company is required to conduct first an uncrewed and then a crewed test flight as steps toward certification of their systems for operational flights.  Boeing’s uncrewed test flight is currently scheduled for April and its crewed test flight for August.

Developing and testing human spaceflight systems is complex and launch schedules are subject to change.  NASA’s contract with Roscosmos to launch astronauts to ISS expires soon and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel have cautioned NASA to make contingency plans in case these commercial crew systems are not ready in time.  They do not want schedule pressure to imperil safety.  To that end, NASA recently indicated that it plans to procure two additional Russian Soyuz seats beyond its existing contract just in case there are delays.

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