Featured Image Source: NASA
SpaceX is preparing to conduct their first manned mission known as Demo-2,
as part as their Commercial Crew Program contract with NASA. Demo-2 mission will consist of launching two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time. Dragon will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Demo-2 could take place sometime between April and June this year. NASA officials previously talked about May 7th as a potential target date. On Tuesday, at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, D.C. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, told reporters that the rocket company aims to launch the crewed debut flight in two months. Shotwell confirmed:
"We're gunning for May. We have work to do, NASA has work to do. […] We're going to have to go through a certification process."
When SpaceX conducts the Demo-2 mission, it will ignite a new era in spaceflight, they will become the first United States aerospace company to fly NASA astronauts from American soil in nearly a decade! Veteran NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. They have been conducting all sorts of training exercises and flight preparations ranging from conducting live exercises with a Dragon craft replica to familiarize with software and hardware, to preparing for potential emergencies. Shotwell believes that the astronaut training may not affect the two-month target date, stating:
"I think with the training that Bob and Doug are going through right now ... I think we can be done by May, but we want to be ready to fly in May."
Behnken and Hurley have been training for their next space mission that could include extravehicular activity (EVA), a spacewalk outside the orbiting laboratory. Shotwell shared that the length of the Demo-2 mission is still under debate, its "kind of TBD right now," she said. (TBD is an acronym for -"to be decided" or "to be determined.") Though, by the looks of it, it seems NASA is training Behnken and Hurley for a longer duration mission because getting ready for spacewalks involves extensive training.
To train for spacewalks, astronauts practice underwater inside a special swimming pool - the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, or NBL, located near NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Floating in water is like floating in space, so practicing under water simulates zero-gravity-like environment. The pool holds 6.2 million gallons of water. Astronauts train for a total of 7 hours inside the pool for every 1 hour they will spend on an actual spacewalk mission outside the space station. Its probable that NASA is planning a longer-duration mission, or else they would not put astronauts through extensive EVA training if they were planning a short-duration Demo-2 mission to ISS for the Dragon spacecraft.
Shotwell also shared that SpaceX is planning to reuse its Crew Dragon capsules. In 2018, the company had plans to only reuse the Dragon spacecrafts used to transport cargo, and use new spacecrafts every time they launch astronauts. She told reporters:
"We can fly crew more than once on a Crew Dragon. I'm pretty sure NASA is going to be okay with reuse."
SpaceX has demonstrated their spacecrafts are reliable to be reused. The rocket company is known for reusing their Falcon 9 first-stage rocket boosters. They also have experience in reusing the Cargo Dragon spacecraft up to three times. No aerospace company has achieved their level of reusability, most company's discard their spacecraft on the first use. Reusing spacecraft reduces manufacturing and operational costs. SpaceX's long-term goal is to develop a vehicle that will be as reusable as aircraft, with little maintenance between flights.