SpaceX and NASA have completed test runs with the company’s Florida recovery fleet in preparation for Crew Dragon’s first orbital missions with astronauts aboard, ensuring that there is an infrastructure in place to rapidly transport astronauts to shore and deal with any potential medical emergencies that might arise.
X marks the spot where @SpaceX will land a helicopter at sea in the unlikely event they need to airlift astronauts to a hospital after Crew Dragon splashes down: https://t.co/dmUq4OgZz5 pic.twitter.com/wCmbKqGlWp
— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) November 5, 2018
Over the past three months, SpaceX’s Florida marine engineers and technicians have extensively upgraded two recovery vessels that – while typically only accessories to Falcon 9 drone ship recoveries – will soon play mission-critical roles in Crew Dragon’s operational transport and recovery of NASA astronauts. Named GO Searcher and GO Navigator (GO stands for Guice Offshore, the owner and operator), the vessels will likely end up as twins to ensure redundancy – one ship breaking down cannot be allowed to significantly delay launch or recovery operations.
For Searcher and Navigator, their duties will include acting as major communications relays (evidenced by the recent installation of a large radome on Searcher), lifting several-ton Crew Dragon capsules aboard for hardware checkouts and astronaut offloading, verifying astronaut health with onboard medical facilities, and supporting a helipad for helicopter operations. Prior to Crew Dragon, SpaceX has used GO Searcher as a communications relay to gather Falcon 9 booster and fairing telemetry and sometimes act as a backup view for drone ship Of Course I Still Love You’s livestream attempts. It’s unclear if the vessel will continue to perform those tasks once Crew Dragon begins launch operations early next year.
Aside from acting as a rapid bridge between Crew Dragon’s astronauts and the shore, GO Searcher (and perhaps Navigator) will also become a foundation of SpaceX’s next-gen Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft when it takes over Cargo Dragon’s International Space Station (ISS) resupply role sometime in 2020. After recovery aboard GO Searcher or Navigator, Crew Dragon capsules will be refurbished and lightly modified for operation as Cargo Dragon, mainly involving the removal of crew-specific hardware inside the pressure section and the addition of Cargo-specific hardware and software.
By using Crew Dragon to also fulfill CRS-2 cargo missions, SpaceX is likely hoping to minimize the manufacturing infrastructure needed, removing the need for an entirely separate assembly line.
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