Featured Image Source: SpaceX
NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley will conduct SpaceX’s first manned rocket flight, the Demo-2 mission, that will ultimately return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America. The last crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) launched from American soil occurred in 2011. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will be deployed by a Falcon 9 rocket to space from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission is scheduled for May 27th at 4:32 p.m. Eastern Time. Behnken and Hurley have a vast experience as astronauts. For the past months, they have trained inside Crew Dragon simulators, and practiced emergency escape operations at the launch pad with NASA’s Emergency egress system that consists of escaping of the 265-foot-level Pad 39A tower by riding slide-wire baskets to the ground.
During a conference held on May 1st, SpaceX and NASA officials discussed their plans for the Demo-2 mission and expressed enthusiasm. Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, told SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell – “I can’t tell you how exciting of a day this is for us. Gwynne and I have been waiting for this for a while!”
Shotwell stated SpaceX was in the process of conducting Dragon’s final parachute test – “We’re looking forward to finishing that test and getting that item closed out.” A few hours later, SpaceX announced it completed the final parachute(s) test successfully – “27th and final test of Crew Dragon’s upgraded Mark 3 parachutes complete – one step closer to flying NASA astronauts Behnken and Hurley to the Space Station and safely returning them back home to Earth.”
27th and final test of Crew Dragon’s upgraded Mark 3 parachutes complete – one step closer to flying @NASA astronauts @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug to the @space_station and safely returning them back home to Earth pic.twitter.com/tY9jKKwzFi— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 1, 2020
SpaceX has been conducting a series of Dragon parachute tests to meet NASA's safety standards before sending humans aboard. SpaceX uses a spacecraft-like mock-up of Dragon which features a Mark 3 parachute system to conduct drop tests. The parachute tests are conducted with an airplane that drops the test vehicle which is equipped with four ‘Mark-3’ parachutes. The parachutes will be used when astronauts return from the space station. As Dragon enters our atmosphere, it deploys its parachutes to conduct a soft landing in the ocean. It will be the first time SpaceX returns humans from space.
The company conducted an ‘In-Flight Abort’ demonstration test of the spacecraft’s launch escape system in January (video below), meant to rescue astronauts in the event of an emergency, like a rocket malfunction mid-flight. The In-Flight Abort test featured a parachute deployment to land at sea. That day, SpaceX demonstrated the crafts capability to save lives.
Video recap of Crew Dragon’s in-flight escape test, which verified the system’s capability to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent → https://t.co/R6z6Tc1Su6 pic.twitter.com/C4JEvv2nc0— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 1, 2020
The Demo-2 mission will be the final major demonstration flight before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon to conduct operational missions to the space station. SpaceX will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America!
Though, during May 1st conference, NASA Administrator stated the agency did book another flight aboard Russian spacecraft slated for October, as a back up for any potential delays. “We’re getting close to finalizing that deal, and I think it’s within days of being signed.” He stated NASA must evaluate SpaceX Crew Dragon’s performance during the Demo-2 mission before deciding to book additional flights aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Dragon is currently undergoing final preparations at SpaceX’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida. In the weeks ahead, NASA and SpaceX will coordinate additional readiness and safety reviews. These flight readiness reviews are scheduled for: May 8 at SpaceX and May 11 and 20 at NASA; Ahead of the mission on May 27th.
Bridenstine mentioned again that the public should watch the launch from home, due to the coronavirus, COVID-19 respiratory illness. “The challenge we’re up against right now is we want to keep everybody safe. That’s the number one, highest priority of NASA. So we’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center. That makes me sad to even say it,” he said. “Having large crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at the Kennedy Space Center, now is not the time for that. We don’t want an outbreak.”