Featured Image Source: SpaceX
NASA funded SpaceX’s Crew Dragon development under a $3.1 billion Commercial Crew Program contract to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). After roughly a decade, the agency is preparing to conduct its first crewed flight. NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will conduct the mission, known as Demo-2. They will take-off aboard the Dragon spacecraft, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Spaceflight Now reporters, “I think we’re really good shape. I’m fairly confident that we can launch at the end of May. If we do slip, it’ll probably be into June. It won’t be much.” He shared that SpaceX will conduct a couple of craft safety tests, that involve technical reviews of Dragon’s launch abort system and conducting final testing of Dragon’s main parachutes and drogue chutes. The Dragon spacecraft features parachutes that will be used when astronauts return from the space station. As Dragon enters Earth's atmosphere, it deploys its parachutes to conduct a soft landing in the ocean. Parachutes can also be deployed in the unlikely event of an emergency. SpaceX uses a mock-up of the Dragon craft, which features a Mark 3 parachute system, to conduct drop tests. These parachutes have already been tested successfully 24 times, but last month, SpaceX conducted a parachute test in Nevada that did not go as planned. The company announced: "During a planned parachute drop test today, the test article suspended underneath the helicopter became unstable out of abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe, the pilot pulled the emergency release." The rocket company detailed the event, stating "the helicopter was not yet a target conditions, the test article was not armed, and as such, the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence. While the test article was lost, this was not a failure of the parachute system and most importantly no one was injured." Regarding the event, Bridenstine stated:
“It got unstable. The pilot dropped the test article, which was basically just a weight simulator. Nothing from that was recoverable, including the parachutes that were on-board. So, we’ve got two more parachute tests, and now they’re going to be done out of the C-130 [cargo plane] instead of from a helicopter. We’ve got agreement from the chief engineer and the program manager, and the astronaut office, that those two parachute tests that we have remaining are good to go out of the C-130.”
SpaceX team has completed 13 successful tests in a row of upgraded Mark 3 parachutes for Crew Dragon. Most recent test demonstrated the parachute system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event that one of the four main parachutes fails. pic.twitter.com/VJzDeS8UAG— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 3, 2019
SpaceX will conduct two final parachute tests. They will drop the test-vehicle from a C-130 airplane (as shown in the video above). The safety system is triggered at a specific altitude as the vehicle free-falls, and it automatically deploys its parachutes. The test will intentionally be programmed so that only one of the crafts two drogue parachutes deploy, and just three of the four main parachutes will deploy to simulate a ‘double failure’ of the safety system. “After that, we’ll be doing another full test with two drogue chutes and four main chutes,” Bridenstine said. “And once we’re complete with those two tests, we’ll be confident in the parachute system. I think we’re pretty much confident in the parachute system right now. We just want to get more data.”
Meanwhile, Astronaut Behnken and Astronaut Hurley are continuing their training for the vital Demo-2 mission that will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America. 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. “Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will go up as not just demonstration pilots for Demo-2, but they would actually become crew on-board the International Space Station for a period of months to do work, and they would continue to operate on the ISS. And then when we’re ready with the next Crew Dragon, they’ll come home,” Bridenstine told Spaceflight Now. The craft will stay docked for about two or three months to the station. When they return, Dragon will conduct a parachute-assisted splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral’s coast. It will be the first time SpaceX returns humans from space aboard its spacecraft, that is why engineers must make sure the parachute system works at optimal levels.