SpaceX will perform its first crewed launch on May 27th, a special Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from historic Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, carrying NASA 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 called Demo-2, 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.
Astronauts Behnken and Hurley have extensive experience as Space Shuttle and military pilots. During the Demo-2 mission, they will carry out a series of test objectives to ensure SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is safe to transport astronauts during operational missions. 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 Demo-2, 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, “The Dragon spacecraft does have a lot of capabilities for us to intervene manually.” Behnken said, “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."
Today, May 12, SpaceX released an interactive online simulator that is a replica of what Astronauts Behnken and Hurley used to train for the Demo-2 mission. The interactive simulator allows players to try to dock the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, using similar controls the astronauts will use during their voyage in space. SpaceX announced:
“Crew Dragon missions will autonomously dock and undock with the space station, but crew can take manual control of the spacecraft if necessary.”
Crew Dragon missions will autonomously dock and undock with the space station, but crew can take manual control of the spacecraft if necessary— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 12, 2020
SpaceX stated the online simulator is the “actual interface” that astronauts will use. The simulator game begins with the Dragon craft in space. As the craft approaches the ISS orbiting laboratory, the goal is to maneuver the spacecraft so that the docking port is facing the station’s attachment module. Docking manually to the space station is a slow process that must be done carefully.
Astronaut Hurley explained during the conference, they 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.”
The Crew Dragon system includes touch screens and toggles to control manually, these feature “robust fault tolerance” built-in, according to the company. Dragon features a set of three touchscreen displays that are responsive through SpaceX-spacesuit gloves. These screens provide orbital flight tracking. 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.
You can try to pilot the Crew Dragon spacecraft and dock it to the space station virtually! Try the online simulator on SpaceX’s website: Crew Dragon Simulator
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.