Featured Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX is preparing to conduct their first crewed mission, Demo-2, as part of a Commercial Crew Program contract with NASA to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first mission, Demo-1, took place in 2019, it was an uncrewed flight that demonstrated Dragon's capacity to operate reliably. It became the first American spacecraft in history to dock autonomously to the station's module. NASA and SpaceX shared in a statement last month, they are targeting "no earlier than mid-to-late May" to conduct the Demo-2 mission. It will be the first time in nearly a decade that the agency launches astronauts to space from American soil. NASA has been booking Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to ISS laboratory, since the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011.
NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will liftoff atop a Falcon 9 rocket from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Astronauts completed a series of SpaceX simulations in March meant to prepare them for the mission. During training they run through 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 and learn how to manually fix any issue inside the capsule to return home safely.
Crew Dragon is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers and over 7,000 pounds of cargo aboard. The vehicle's environmental control and life support system will provide a comfortable and safe environment for its passengers. During the voyage, astronauts on board will be able to set the spacecraft's interior temperature to between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
SpaceX released some new photographs of Dragon's cabin (shown below). Inside, Dragon features 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. The buttons are to trigger functions needed during emergency situations. For example, there is an actual button meant to be used to put out a fire, and one to conduct an 'emergency deobit.'
Dragon features three touchscreen computers, which are responsive through specialized 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 Dragon's integrated space thrusters to slightly alter the craft's direction. Which is probably a function that will not be utilized often because last year Crew Dragon demonstrated it's impressive technology allows it to dock autonomously - flawlessly - to the International Space Station, with no manual intervention. The option to manually control is there, just in case it's needed.
There is also one handle at the center of the console with the word "Eject" next to it. This handle is meant to be pulled only during a dangerous life-threatening situation inside the 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. The handle could manually trigger the launch escape system. As astronauts twist and pull the "Eject" handle, it automatically begins countdown to ignite Dragon's eight SuperDraco engines, and begin flying them away from danger. In January, SpaceX successfully tested Dragon's launch escape system during an In-Flight Abort test that proved the spacecraft can save astronauts lives.
Crew Dragon separating from Falcon 9 during today’s test, which verified the spacecraft’s ability to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent pic.twitter.com/rxUDPFD0v5— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 19, 2020
On the outside, Dragon has four side mounted pods. Inside each there is 1 Draco thruster that can be used to control orientation and do orbital maneuvers in space. Inside each pod there are also pairs of SuperDraco engines. The eight SuperDraco engines are used during an emergency situation to escape danger by thrusting away from a Falcon 9 rocket while in flight. After escaping danger, the craft performs a parachute-assisted splashdown in the ocean. In January, SpaceX demonstrated the craft is capable of saving astronauts' lives during an emergency.
Astronauts Behnken and Hurley are currently training for the Demo-2 mission that is scheduled for May, despite of the Coronavirus pandemic that is ongoing worldwide. NASA stated its limiting contact with astronauts and only allows "mission-essential" personnel at work, in order to help reduce the chances of Covid-19 spread. SpaceX will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States during a time when the world truly needs some inspiration.