SpaceX, NASA enter final phase of training for imminent astronaut launch debut

NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley practice launch drills with teams from NASA and SpaceX. Credt: NASA

SpaceX and NASA are working together to make sure they’re ready to start flying crews to the space station. Two astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are preparing to launch on a Crew Dragon capsule, with a scheduled date of mid to late May for the historic launch.

As the world deals with the coronavirus, essential personnel at both NASA and SpaceX are continuing to progress to a crew flight. Since the final shuttle flight in 2011, NASA and other space agencies around the world have been forced to rely on Russian rockets as their sole means of transporting astronauts to and from space.

That will change with the next flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. The gumdrop-shaped spacecraft is set to carry Behnken and Hurley to the orbiting outpost. The length of their stay is still to be determined, but training efforts suggest that it will be longer than the original planned flight.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley left, and Bob Behnken stand near Launch Pad 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 17, 2020, during a dress rehearsal ahead of the SpaceX uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test. Credit: NASA

To that end, the duo has been working with NASA and SpaceX to practice day of launch procedures. On March 19 and 20, teams gathered in Firing Room 4 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to complete a series of full missions, from launch to landing. After the retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA turned to the private sector to find its next generation of space taxi.

The space agency selected SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to each build a spacecraft capable of ferrying crew to and from the space station. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was the first to complete an uncrewed flight test, where the vehicle proved it could dock and undock itself from the space station. That test was a huge success and was followed on by a picture-perfect test of the Crew Dragon’s onboard escape system earlier this year.

Following the inflight abort test, all SpaceX needed to do was complete a few more tests of its Mark 3 parachute before NASA gave the all-clear to launch. But the company ran into a snag when it experienced two incidents back-to-back – the loss of a mock Dragon used for parachute testing and an unrelated in-flight rocket engine failure.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean under parachute when it returns to Earth. Credit: SpaceX

But SpaceX and NASA’s plans appear unphased, and the duo are working full steam ahead to the tentative May launch deadline. Key flight control teams stationed at their launch posts at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center and SpaceX HQ have simulated the different phases of launch. In contrast, the astronauts have practiced launch procedures from their Crew Dragon simulator.

“The simulations were a great opportunity to practice procedures and to coordinate decision-making for the mission management team, especially with respect to weather,” Michael Hess, manager of operations integration for NASA’s commercial crew program said in a news statement.

“Simulation supervisors do a great job at picking cases that really make the team think and discuss,” he added.

During the most recent simulations, teams ran through an entire mission, from prelaunch countdown to ascent and docking with the station while previous tests ran through timelines from hatch closure to undocking from the space station as well as practiced free-flight in preparation for re-entry and splashdown.

Technicians prepare SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 spacecraft for its historic launch debut in February 2020. Credit: SpaceX

The countdown is on as the Crew Dragon capsule undergoes its final testing and preparations at SpaceX facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Once crew training and flight readiness reviews are complete, the spacecraft will be attached to its launcher: a shiny, new Falcon 9 booster.

If all goes according to plan, in late May, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will strap in and blast off the space station. There they will join fellow NASA astronaut, Chris Cassidy, who launches to the space station on April 9.

To ensure the mission gets off without a hitch, NASA and SpaceX are working closely and adhering to CDC guidelines to ensure teams stay safe and healthy. All non-essential employees are working from home, and the number of people coming in contact with the astronauts is minimal.

“The Space Station Program is looking forward to [having] another way to rotate crews to station to perform science and experiments to benefit all,” Hess said.

Amy Thompson: I write about space, science, and future tech.
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