Although the chances of additional delays are high, the orbital launch debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft remains stoically targeted for 2:47 am EDT (07:47 UTC) on March 2nd, less than ten days from today.
Known as DM-1, the unproven SpaceX vehicle’s autonomous demonstration mission is a critical milestone along the road to assured US access to the International Space Station (ISS), without which NASA will be forced to continue procuring seats on Russian Soyuz missions with aggressively inflated price tags. If everything goes exactly as planned, a successful DM-1 could translate into the company’s first crewed launch as early as July 2019.
Following a nominal mission plan, the first spaceworthy Crew Dragon will dock with the ISS a little over 24 hours after launch (March 3rd) with around 180 kg (400 lb) of cargo for the station’s six-astronaut crew. Five days later (March 8th), Crew Dragon will depart from the ISS, detach its expendable trunk, and reenter Earth’s atmosphere for a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout these operations, ISS astronauts, NASA technicians and operators, and a range of SpaceX employees will conduct extensive observations and tests of the new spacecraft’s performance during all mission phases, ranging from on-orbit docking (a new technology for SpaceX) to Atlantic Ocean recovery operations.
Once the capsule has been extricated from the ocean, SpaceX’s spacecraft refurbishment technicians will be faced with an extraordinary challenge, upon which the date of Crew Dragon’s first crewed launch will directly hinge. Assuming splashdown ops are nominal and Dragon is returned safely to Florida, it’s safe to assume that SpaceX will transport the spacecraft to its Hawthorne factory, at which point its engineers and technicians will have roughly two months to prepare it for another launch. Known as an in-flight abort (IFA) test, SpaceX specifically opted to perform the spacecraft safety check despite the fact that NASA did not explicitly require its commercial providers (Boeing and SpaceX) to do so. SpaceX completed Crew Dragon’s pad abort test – required by NASA – almost four years ago, while Boeing will not perform an in-flight abort before launching astronauts and has its pad abort scheduled no earlier than (NET) May 2019.
SpaceX’s IFA test is designed to verify that Crew Dragon is capable of safely extricating its astronaut passengers from a failing rocket at the point of peak aerodynamic (and thus mechanical) stress during launch, known as Max Q. Combined with a pad abort demonstration, where the above situation is replicated but with the rocket and spacecraft motionless on the launch pad, the engineering assumption is that successful aborts at both standstill and Max Q verify that a given spacecraft has proven that it can essentially abort and carry astronauts to safety at any point during launch.
“The launch scenario where an abort is initiated during the ascent trajectory at the maximum dynamic pressure (known as max Q) is a design driver for the launch abort system. It dictates the highest thrust and minimum relative acceleration required between Falcon 9 and the aborting Dragon … Dragon would separate from Falcon 9 at the interface between the trunk and the second stage… Under these conditions, the Falcon 9 vehicle would become uncontrollable and would break apart.” – SpaceX FAA permit, 2018
Aside from a boilerplate Merlin Vacuum engine on the second stage, SpaceX’s IFA test is set to fly on real Falcon 9 hardware that will almost certainly be consigned to total destruction at the point of abort, around 90 seconds after launch. SpaceX’s decision to expend an entirely flightworthy Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket – featuring a booster capable of supporting anywhere from 5-100 lifetime missions – is a tangible demonstration of the company’s commitment to crew safety above all else, although NASA will either partially or fully compensate SpaceX for the milestone. Set to occur no earlier than June 2019, the IFA schedule is explicitly constrained by the successful launch and recovery of Crew Dragon after DM-1 – any delays to that mission will likely translate into IFA delays, which will translate into delays for the first crewed mission (DM-2).
SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon engineers and technicians have a solid amount of experience refurbishing the spacecraft for cargo missions to the ISS, although the average turnaround for flight-proven capsules currently stands around 18-24 months, not exactly on the heels of the 2-3 months currently alotted for the first Crew Dragon. Thanks to the fact that the IFA Crew Dragon does not need to be refurbished to the standards of orbital flight for its second launch, it’s at least conceivable that that aspirational schedule is within reach. SpaceX’s first crewed demonstration mission (DM-2) could occur as early as one month after a successful IFA (July 2019), pending the completion of joint NASA-SpaceX readiness reviews.
Known as flight readiness reviews (FRRs), those joint reviews are no less significant for DM-1, even if they likely are underwhelmingly marked by a copious amount of slideshow presentations and sitting around tables in meeting rooms. The purpose of the reviews (at least nominally) is to essentially have SpaceX attempt to convince NASA (as empirically as possible) that they are ready to launch Crew Dragon. According to NASA, that review will end NET 6pm EDT (23:00 UTC) on February 22nd, followed one hour later by an official press conference featuring NASA and SpaceX officials.
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