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SpaceX reinforced Crew Dragon's heat shield for upcoming NASA Astronaut launch

by Evelyn Arevalo September 30, 2020

SpaceX reinforced Crew Dragon's heat shield for upcoming NASA Astronaut launch

Demo-2 SpaceX Crew Dragon recovery after Florida coast splashdown on August 2, 2020.  (Image Source: NASA/Mike Downs)

SpaceX is preparing to launch four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It will be the first operational mission, Crew-1, conducted by the aerospace company and NASA. The Crew-1 mission is scheduled for Halloween, October 31st. Crew Dragon will propel to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket at around 2:40 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “The launch will be the first time an international crew will fly aboard a NASA-certified, commercially-owned and operated American rocket and spacecraft from American soil,” the agency stated.

The astronauts that will ride Dragon are three NASA astronauts: Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, joint-commander Pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker, along with one Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut mission specialist Soichi Noguchi. Their mission is expected to be a six-month-long stay at the space station.

 



This week, on September 29, NASA hosted a conference with SpaceX officials where they discussed the upcoming Crew-1 mission.Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said, "I'm counting on a beautiful mission."

During the conference, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said that the company reinforced Crew Dragon's heat shield upon noticing the spacecraft underwent "erosion" after the successful Demo-2 mission that officially returned human spaceflight capabilites to the United States. On May 30th, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley made history when they launched aboard Crew Dragon. It was the first crewed flight launched from American soil in nearly a decade! After a two-month stay at ISS the spacecraft returned them safely to Earth on August 2nd.

Upon return, Dragon crossed Earth's harsh atmosphere; it experienced temperatures that reach as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, then the spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. When recovery teams picked up the capsule from the ocean, it was filled with scorch marks caused by the fiery reentry. Koenigsmann shared on Tuesday that SpaceX engineers noticed “a little more erosion than we wanted to see” in a few areas of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon heat shield (pictured above). He said there “was nothing to be concerned with at all times. The astronauts were safe, and the vehicle was working perfectly.”

 



Koenigsmann said the Demo-2 Crew Dragon has wear-and-tear in a few areas of the heat shield, where bolts connect the capsule (that astronauts ride) to the spacecraft's trunk (that is discarded in space upon return). SpaceX engineers reinforced the heat shield and tested it in a wind tunnel at NASA's Ames Research Center in California earlier this month and both NASA and SpaceX are satisfied with the testing results. He shared that engineers also modifed Crew Dragon's pressure sensor that triggers the parachutes upon return from space. He stated that if the parachutes deployed at a low altitude during the Demo-2 mission and that it would have been better if deployment occurred at a slightly higher altitude. So, engineers adjusted the spacecraft that will launch the next crew of four astronauts to deploy its parachutes sooner.




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