Crew Dragon

NASA Astronauts will pilot SpaceX’s Crew Dragon manually to test the feature

NASA Astronauts will pilot SpaceX’s Crew Dragon manually to test the feature

Featured Image Source: NASA 

SpaceX will perform its first crewed launch in a couple of weeks. On May 27th at around 4:32 p.m. EDT, a Falcon 9 rocket sporting NASA’s retro ‘worm’ logo, will lift off from historic Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, carrying NASA veteran astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight will be the first crewed mission launched from American soil in roughly a decade. The mission is known as Demo-2, because it is Dragon’s second demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Demo-1, Crew Dragon’s first demonstration test, was an uncrewed mission which showcased the spacecraft’s capability to operate autonomously. Crew Dragon became the first American spacecraft in history to dock autonomously to the space station’s module.

Source: SpaceX 

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley have extensive experience as pilots. They both performed Space Shuttle missions to the station. During Demo-2, they will carry out a series of test objectives to ensure SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is safe to transport astronauts during operational missions. During a press conference that took place on May 1st, Behnken shared about how the Dragon spacecraft differs from the Space Shuttle – “The flying task is very unique: To come close to the space station and fly in proximity, then slowly come into contact, is maybe a little bit different from what you would see for flying a space shuttle or an aircraft.” Unlike the Space Shuttle, Dragon features a set of three touchscreen displays that 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 onboard. A simple tap on a screen is capable of igniting Dragon’s integrated space thrusters to slightly alter the craft's direction. Both astronauts collaborated with SpaceX to design interior controls and display features in the Dragon spacecraft, "Every display and every procedure that is presented to crews in the future is going to have multiple items...that are our inputs," he shared. “It was challenging for us and for them at first to work through those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from the manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well,” Hurley added. “The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input, relative to what you would do with a stick. Because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down. I actually have to make a concerted effort to do that with the touchscreen, if that makes sense.”

“I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is not to switch to a touchscreen, necessarily,” Behnken stated. “But for the task that we have and to keep ourselves safe flying close to the ISS, the touchscreen is going to provide us that capability just fine.”



Behnken and Hurley have been training at SpaceX headquarters for years on Dragon mock-up simulators, to familiarize themselves with every software and hardware feature. “When we evaluated the touchscreen interface we really did focus on the task at hand and trying to get good performance for that specific task,” Behnken later stated.

Crew Dragon is capable of operating with full autonomy. However, during the Demo-2 mission, one of the test objectives is to switch to manual control to test the craft’s capabilities. Testing the manual feature ensures the system works in case future crews need to pilot craft due to a technology glitch or emergency, Behnken shared:

“The Dragon spacecraft does have a lot of capabilities for us to intervene manually. We do have a series of manual capabilities that allow us to really protect ourselves if the automation was to have some sort of a problem with it. [Hurley] …Should have the opportunity a couple of times during the [Demo-2] flight to manually fly the vehicle with those interfaces."

Astronaut Hurley explained during the conference, he will pilot Crew Dragon manually for a couple of instances during the Demo-2 voyage to the space station, he stated:

“We specifically, as part of this test flight, designed in some time in the pre-flight phase, as well as closer to the space station, so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle. Just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to, and the way the simulator shows it to fly. It’s a prudent part of our flight test just like anything else, in case the eventuality happened that a future crew needed to take over manually and fly the spacecraft. So, we’re just doing our part, to kinda’ test out all the different capabilities of the Crew Dragon.”


About the Author

Evelyn Arevalo

Evelyn Arevalo

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.

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