SpaceX gets official ‘go’ from NASA for upcoming astronaut launch debut

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-2 mission, Thursday, May 21, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission is the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The flight test will serve as an end-to-end demonstration of SpaceX’s crew transportation system. Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to launch at 4:33 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 27, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to low-Earth orbit for the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Days before the final test flight and first crewed flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, Demo-2, representatives from SpaceX, NASA, and the International Space Station met for an intensive Flight Readiness Review (FRR) to determine whether or not the historic mission could proceed toward a May 27th, 2020 launch attempt.

On May 21, 2020, inside the Operations Support Building II at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA and SpaceX managers participate in a flight readiness review for the upcoming Demo-2 launch. (Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Leaders from SpaceX and NASA such a NASA’s Commerical Crew Program Manager, Kathy Lueders; International Space Station Program manager Kirk Shireman; SpaceX’s director of Crew Mission Management, Benji Reed in conjunction with Russian and Japanese representatives from the International Space Station partnership came together to discuss the findings of previous, specialized reviews, close out any remaining action items, and give the official nod of approval for SpaceX to send astronauts to orbit for the first time. NASA Associate Administrator, Steve Jurczyk, led the review in place of Doug Loverro who recently resigned as chief of NASA’s human spaceflight program.

On May 22, 2020, inside the Operations Support Building II at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA managers pose for a photo following the conclusion of the flight readiness review for the upcoming Demo-2 launch. Sitting at the table is NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program manager, is to the far right, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine standing next to her. (NASA)

The standard practice joint FRR that occurs ahead of any crew launch comes after a series of previously held independent specialized reviews – such an engineering review of the Crew Dragon capsule and a flight test rate review led by Kathy Lueders and the Commercial Crew Program team. Initially intended to last just one day, the FRR began on Thursday (May 21st), extended to the end of the business day, and continued into Friday (May 22nd). After a day and a half of intensive review and conversation, Steve Jurczyk stated that “We did a thorough review of all of the systems and all the risks, and it was unanimous on the board that we are go for launch.”

NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine spoke at a post review news conference stating that the FRR was a “time to speak up if there are any challenges and there were. There were conversations that were had that were very important to be had.” He also stated that there are still “a lot of checks to do, but the (flight) readiness review was good and we are a go.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-2 mission, Thursday, May 27, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

For Demo-2, the successful FRR is a crucial pathfinding step to confirming launch, however not the last. During the follow-up news conference, SpaceX’s Director of Crew Mission Management, Benji Reed, stated that the go for launch is permission to proceed in the launch sequence, but “really it’s a go to the mission,” referring to the fact that Demo-2 is an extended exercise of SpaceX’s entire human spaceflight system. Demo-2 will every step of the sequences from launch, to docking, to returning NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley home safely. Reed went on to say that “there’ll be constant vigilance and watching of the data and observations as we go through the mission.”

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly to the space station aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on May 27. Credit: NASA

In order to pass this final test flight, SpaceX will have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon are more than capable of delivering and returning astronauts safely to and from orbit. Perhaps the most important objective to be met is achieving NASA human rating certification of SpaceX’s human spaceflight system. In response to a question regarding human rating by CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz, Steve Jurczyk stated that the Demo-2 FRR was an “intermittent interim human rating certification review – validated that this system meets the human rating certification requirements for the Demo-2 mission and those requirements feed forward to future missions, including the Crew-1 mission. We will have a final human rating certification review after Demo-2, before the Crew-1 mission, just to certify the relatively small set of design changes between the Demo-2 system and the Crew-1 system, and at that point, we will deem the system human rating certified.”

A few final hurdles Demo-2 had left to clear is the static firing of the Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engines and a dry dress rehearsal of launch day proceedings scheduled to occur Saturday (May 22nd) to ensure every kink is worked out of the system and everything is ready to go for launch. The dry dress rehearsal will encompass every aspect of launch day, from putting on the spacesuits to climbing into the Crew Dragon capsule. It is expected to end just before propellant loading would begin in the countdown.

Finally, SpaceX is expected to hold its own Launch Readiness Review with appropriate NASA teams in attendance on Monday, May 25th, “to make sure we’re go for each aspect, including go to come home,” as stated by Reed. Upon conclusion, the only thing left to do will be to load the astronauts and launch to the International Space Station, making history for SpaceX once again.

Jamie Groh: Space Journalist and launch photographer.
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