Image Source: SpaceX
NASA has been highly dependent on Russian spacecraft to launch astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) for almost a decade, ever since the United States retired the space shuttle program in 2011. NASA started to fund American spacecraft development to launch astronauts from American soil again. SpaceX developed Crew Dragon under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft can carry up to seven passengers and attaches atop of their Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is ready to conduct Crew Dragon's most important test before launching NASA astronauts aboard for the first time this year.
Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon went vertical and the crew access arm was extended last night ahead of tomorrow’s in-flight demonstration of the spacecraft’s launch escape system. The four-hour launch window opens at 8:00 a.m. EST, 13:00 UTC → https://t.co/gtC39uBC7z pic.twitter.com/dS6R3hCgZi— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2020
On Thursday night, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule were raised vertical at historical launch Pad 39A in Florida's NASA Kennedy Space Center, to prepare for SpaceX Crew Dragon's final safety test scheduled for tomorrow. SpaceX stated:
"Tomorrow’s test will demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to separate from Falcon 9 and carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent."
Today there was a launch day rehearsal with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, they were selected to perform SpaceX's first manned mission to the ISS. Hurley and Behnken practiced in their SpaceX-made spacesuits at Pad 39A to go through the procedures they will execute tomorrow. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said:
"Suited up! While crew members won't be aboard Crew Dragon during tomorrow's SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test, astronauts Bob Behnken & Doug Hurley rehearsed what they'll experience during Commercial Crew missions. I'm excited we'll soon launch American astronauts from American soil!"
Source: NASA Livestream
Even though tomorrow's In-Flight Abort (IFA) test launch will be an unmanned mission (no one will be aboard the craft when it lifts-off), SpaceX and NASA are using the test as a real practice scenario. The main objective of the In-Flight Abort test is to demonstrate how Dragon's emergency escape system works, and ensure it is capable of taking astronauts away from danger.
SpaceX and NASA will mimic what a real mission to the space station is like -except that they will intentionally cause a dangerous scenario to see if Crew Dragon's technology is capable of saving astronauts while 'In-Flight.' All staff on the ground will practice how to act in an event of an actual emergency situation. To the extent that SpaceX outfitted one of its boats with a helicopter landing pad designed to facilitate the recovery of the Dragon during a splashdown, like they would during a real manned mission.
NASA and SpaceX officials went over a launch readiness review today and gave approval for SpaceX to proceed with final preparations for the Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort test Saturday morning. The 215-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to liftoff January 18 from Pad 39A during a four-hour launch window beginning at 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. EST.
Meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing predict a 90% chance of favorable weather.
Watch the launch live tomorrow!
Saturday, January 18.
•7:45 a.m. EST – NASA TV test coverage begins for the 8:00 a.m. liftoff.
•9:30 a.m. EST – Post-test news conference at the NASA Kennedy Space Center
SpaceX CEO and founder, Elon Musk, said that during the In-Flight Abort test the Falcon 9 rocket would be "destroyed in Dragon fire." Saturday's mission will be the fourth and final trip for this rocket booster. This was the first Falcon 9 booster in the Block 5 category, that features the capability to conduct up to 10 flights. Though, the most flights SpaceX has conducted with one particular rocket booster is four -which is still an impressive innovation in the aerospace industry.
Destroyed in Dragon fire— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 12, 2020
To intentionally cause a dangerous scenario during tomorrow's IFA test, engineers have configured Dragon to ignite its 8 SuperDraco engines in order to escape from the Falcon 9 rocket 1 minute 30 seconds right after liftoff, that is the time when the vehicle will experience maximum aerodynamic pressure (A.K.A - Max Q). As soon as Dragon's engines ignite the escape countdown begins, the Falcon 9 rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines will shut down, causing the rocket to aerodynamically break. It is expected to explode into the Atlantic Ocean. The debris will be cleaned up immediately by SpaceX recovery teams working in coordination with U.S Air Force Detachment-3 personnel.
Everything is expected to occur very quickly, SuperDraco engines can move Dragon half a mile in only 7.5 seconds, they will burn fuel until completion then shutdown. That's the moment when both crafts will separate from each other. NASA explained that the "spacecraft will passively coast to apogee, the highest point in its arc. Near apogee, Crew Dragon’s trunk will separate and the smaller Draco thrusters will re-orient the spacecraft for reentry and parachute deploy."
So, after its Crew Dragon's engines shut down, it will coast to the highest point of its flight, then the trunk will separate as the craft repositions for descent. It will deploy its parachutes to splashdown about 31 kilometers into Florida's coastline. SpaceX’s recovery ship GO Searcher will be stationed nearby to retrieve it. To meet NASA’s Commercial Crew Program safety requirements SpaceX's Crew Dragon should splashdown intact, with no damage nor leaks inside because the launch escape system should be able to protect astronauts in an event of a dangerous rocket failure.
Musk shared he will be in Florida to watch the launch!
Yes— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2020
If this test goes well, SpaceX will be approved to launch astronauts from American soil for the first time this year after almost a decade!
Good luck to SpaceX and NASA!
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.