NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right) are slated to be the first people SpaceX launches into orbit. Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX developed Crew Dragon under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft can carry up to seven passengers and attaches above their Falcon 9 rocket. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. They have been conducting all sorts of training exercises and flight preparations ranging from trying on spacesuits to preparing for potential emergencies. "Bob and I got pretty close. It's just like anything else—you gravitate to certain people," Hurley said. "We spent a whole bunch of time together, and I got to the point where I thought, 'Hey, maybe this guy isn't so bad.'" The two astronauts are best friends, they have worked together for two decades. "I've seen Doug's behavior at my wedding, I've seen Doug's behavior in an airplane, and we've worked together dealing with the aftermath of the worst thing you can imagine happening in our career field. I can predict his actions. He can predict mine," Behnken said.
NASA astronauts have been working alongside SpaceX over the course of years, more frequently during the previous months to prepare for their upcoming space voyages. They have performed many dress rehearsals with new SpaceX-designed spacesuits. The suit is meant to provide a pressurized environment for all crew members aboard the Dragon capsule, in case of an emergency situation such as cabin depressurization. SpaceX's "slip on," one-piece suit features a single connection point between the suit and vehicle, a communications system to communicate with each other and the craft, as well as hearing protection which will protect astronaut's ears during rocket launch ascent and spacecraft reentry. It also has a flame resistant outer layer and a inner cooling system. The space helmet is 3D printed with solar radiation protection. The gloves are flexible and compatible with touchscreen devices. The boots feature heel sliders which help to secure feet to footrests. Astronaut Hurley said:
"People to a degree think it's pretty glamorous to be able to go into space, but it's actually like a messy camping trip."
Both Behnken, Hurley, also other NASA Commercial Crew astronauts have advised SpaceX about spacesuit features and Crew Dragon's inner design, including switches and control screens.
SpaceX has provided training equipment that include important simulation hardware that will familiarize astronauts with the Dragon spacecraft's software and features. Even though advanced technology has provided automation in spacecraft, astronauts need to be prepared to pilot the craft manually, in case of any kind of technological failure or spacecraft malfunction. To train for any kind of scenario NASA astronauts must learn about every feature Dragon possesses. Behnken and Hurley's preparation for SpaceX's first crewed flight scheduled for this year, involves intensive training exercises and dry runs of launch day procedures.
SpaceX trains NASA astronauts with a Dragon simulator that is like a recreation of the inside of the spacecraft. The simulator has similar seats and windows that look like being inside the real craft. Inside of the simulator (photo below), astronauts can train using same hardware, including buttons, and computer touchscreens. During training Astronauts Hurley and Behnken are given a wide variety of scenarios to practice operations, from regular nominal flights, to complex dangerous or unexpected flight simulations. Where they must deal with knowing Dragon's software well to survive or learning how to manually fix something inside the capsule to return home safely.
SpaceX Dragon training simulator. Image Source: Loren Grush
The training simulator has a section for the pilot and commander, the set up consists of the two center seats that mimic how it is to be inside a real Crew Dragon spacecraft. In front it has a touchscreen and button interface that will be used to control flight operations. Most of the spacecraft's functions are controlled by touchscreens, there are only a few actual buttons inside Dragon, most are buttons that are to be used during emergency situations. For example. there is an actual button meant to be used to put out a fire.
Dragon also features three touchscreen computers, which are responsive through SpaceX-spacesuit gloves. These screens provide orbital flight tracking. Additionally, NASA astronauts will be able to adjust the displays to look at different views of Earth. The software features an option to switch to manual control to steer the craft, displaying an attitude control view on the screens. SpaceX says Crew Dragon's displays "will provide real-time information" on anything "from Dragon's position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board." A simple tap on a screen is capable of igniting Dragons integrated space thrusters to slightly alter the craft's direction. Which is not exactly a function that will be often utilized, because last year Crew Dragon demonstrated impressive technology with capacity to dock autonomously - perfectly - to the International Space Station, with no manual intervention. The option to manually control is there, just in case some external force, like a meteor were to put Dragon at risk of being hit, so a pilot could alter the craft's course through manual controls, but that is a highly unlikely scenario. There is also one handle at the center of the console with the word "Eject" next to it, a handle that is meant to be pulled only during a dangerous life-threatening situation inside the Dragon spacecraft. Hopefully astronauts never need to use it. Crew Dragon's technology has the capacity to automatically detect if there is a rocket malfunction and it immediately aborts Dragon away from an explosion, but the handle could manually trigger the launch escape system. As astronauts twist and pull the "Eject" handle, it automatically begins to ignite Dragon's eight SuperDraco engines to fly the astronauts away from danger. This month, SpaceX successfully tested Dragon's launch escape system, conducted an In-Flight Abort test that proved the spacecraft can save astronauts lives. Read more: Crew Dragon's successful In-Flight Abort test gets SpaceX closer towards launching NASA Astronauts to the Space Station for the first time!
Astronauts also practice different operations, regarding escaping from the actual Falcon 9 rocket while on a launch pad, in the unlikely event of an explosion before liftoff. During an escape exercise (photo above), astronauts pass through the water deluge system on the crew access tower of SpaceX's launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (September 18, 2019).
That emergency escape requires the astronauts to load into baskets on a zipline-like wire (photo above). Once they zip to the ground, an armored vehicle picks them up.
The astronauts have also run through the process of being retrieved from the Crew Dragon capsule after returning from the International Space Station, and splashing down in the ocean (photo above).
During the second quarter this year, SpaceX and NASA aim to launch their first manned mission from American soil to the space station in almost a decade. NASA has not launched astronauts to the station ever since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Everyone's hard work and dedication will ignite an exciting new spaceflight era!
Good luck to SpaceX and NASA!
Follow me on Twitter Evelyn J. Arevalo
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.