SpaceX Moves NASA One Step Closer to Resuming Astronaut Launches from U.S. Soil

SpaceX Moves NASA One Step Closer to Resuming Astronaut Launches from U.S. Soil

SpaceX’s commercial crew system made a picture perfect launch this morning from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL.  The Crew Dragon spacecraft is in orbit and on its way to dock with the International Space Station tomorrow morning about 6:00 am ET.  This uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, moves NASA one step closer to resuming launches of U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil 8 years after the last space shuttle flight.

Liftoff from KSC’s iconic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) was on time at 2:49 am ET.

Apollo missions to the Moon and space shuttle launches to Earth orbit departed from LC-39A.  Today, NASA leases it to SpaceX.  This is not the first SpaceX launch from this pad, but it is the first associated with sending people into orbit.  This Demo-1 test flight carries only an Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD) named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, but the next one will have two astronauts aboard.

Ripley, an instrumented Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD), sitting in the far seat in this interior view of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: Tweet from @elonmusk

NASA has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since the shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services to and from ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA’s commercial crew program is a public-private partnership built on the premise that NASA will be one of many customers for SpaceX and its competitor, Boeing.  NASA does not own the spacecraft or launch vehicles, but purchases crew transportation services from the companies. Each must launch an uncrewed and then a crewed test flight to be certified by NASA for operational missions.

Assuming all goes well with the rest of this mission, SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley is expected in July.  The flight after that will be the first operational or “post certification” mission.  It will have four crew members: NASA’s Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover plus two from ISS partners who have not been named yet.

The target date for Boeing’s uncrewed test flight is April and the crewed test flight in August.  NASA is hoping that the SpaceX and Boeing systems are operational by the end of this year.  NASA’s contract with Russia expires soon, although NASA recently decided to purchase two additional Soyuz seats in case of delays.

In a statement after the launch, Bridenstine congratulated the SpaceX/NASA team “for this major milestone in our nation’s space history.”

Although the launch was a success, much remains to be accomplished.  SpaceX Dragon spacecraft have delivered cargo to the ISS many times, but this is the first Dragon to dock rather than berth with ISS.  In berthing, the spacecraft maneuvers close to the ISS and stops. It then is captured by astronauts using the robotic Canadarm2 after which ground controllers install it onto a docking port.  Crew Dragon must dock using its own propulsion and navigation systems.  Reentry also will be different since the exterior of Crew Dragon has additional thrusters, for example, which make it asymmetrical.

In short, this is a test flight and there is a lot of testing that remains to be done.  The spacecraft will dock at ISS tomorrow morning about 6:00 am ET and depart on Friday morning, March 8, splashing down in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.  NASA TV will cover all the key events.

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