December 18, 2019 •Evelyn J. Arevalo
The United States has been highly dependent on Russian spacecraft to launch manned missions for the past years. The Russian Soyuz craft has been taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since the space shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011. So it is important for NASA to fund the development of American spacecraft. SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft is in development under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program to take astronauts to and from the space station. Both, SpaceX and NASA see this as their highest priority.
Crew Dragon has been undergoing a series of tests before the first crewed mission could take place next year. SpaceX already proved their spacecraft can autonomously dock to the space station during their first demonstration mission, Demo-1, that occurred in March. It became the first American spacecraft in history to autonomously dock with the space station. It was a huge achievement for SpaceX.
Astronauts on the @Space_Station have opened the hatch on @SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft! The station crew can now go inside the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock to the orbiting laboratory. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/z2rP5MWCqu— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) March 3, 2019
The craft has now arrived at its final phase of testing, this phase involves an In-Flight Abort test, which is critical to get approval for manned flights. NASA and SpaceX announced today that the In-Flight Abort test demonstration for Crew Dragon is scheduled for no earlier than January 11, 2020 adding that they are still pending flight approval from the U.S Air Force.
"NASA and SpaceX are targeting no earlier than Jan. 11, 2020, for a critical In-Flight Abort Test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, pending U.S. Air Force Eastern Range approval."
.@NASA & @SpaceX are now targeting no earlier than Jan. 11, 2020 for an In-Flight Abort Test of the #CrewDragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at @NASAKennedy.— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) December 18, 2019
🐉: https://t.co/T8dEFObnoZ pic.twitter.com/EvQeyWue5l
The In-Flight Abort test is an unmanned mission. During the test, Crew Dragon will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, then SpaceX will simulate a launch emergency about 90 seconds after liftoff. During this time, Crew Dragon will escape from the moving rocket by firing its 8 SuperDraco abort engines to fly away while In-Flight. Once it ejects itself away from the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon will deploy it's 4 integrated parachutes to soft land into the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX must demonstrate to NASA that the Crew Dragon spacecraft has the capability to safely separate from the Falcon 9 rocket in the event of an emergency while in motion. NASA officials said in a statement:
"As part of the test, SpaceX will configure Crew Dragon to trigger a launch escape shortly after liftoff and demonstrate Crew Dragon's capability to safely separate from the Falcon 9 rocket in the unlikely event of an in-flight emergency. The demonstration also will provide valuable data toward NASA certifying SpaceX's crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station."
In preparation, a series of static fire engine tests of Crew Dragon that where conducted on November 13th, near SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Ahead of this test SpaceX also modified the craft's parachute system and have tested it's efficiency over a dozen times. They are also going to conduct a routine Falcon 9 static-fire test before the In-Flight Abort Test can take place.
This week SpaceX completed the 7th successful system test of Crew Dragon’s upgraded Mark 3 parachutes, which will provide a safe landing back on Earth for astronauts returning from the @space_station pic.twitter.com/FdBXdvqmf4— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 5, 2019
The In-Flight Abort test is one of the final major tests for SpaceX before NASA astronauts will fly aboard the craft for the very first time on the company's Demo-2 mission. If SpaceX achieves a successful test in January, NASA astronauts will fly to the International Space Station next year on their second demonstration mission. Beginning the dawn of a new space era, where American rockets launch astronauts from American soil.
Good luck to SpaceX and NASA!