SpaceX’s primary Crew Dragon recovery vessel GO Searcher is undergoing a number of modifications in preparation for inaugural demonstrations flights of the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.
Most notably, GO Searcher is being fitted with a helipad that will be used to rapidly transfer astronauts from Crew Dragon to Cape Canaveral, where they will go through a number of medical evaluations and debriefings after a six-month stay in orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Over the last year or so, the long-time member of SpaceX’s East Coast rocket recovery fleet has been gradually receiving upgrades and conducting sea trials and mockup Dragon recovery tests, performed in concert with the US Air Force and NASA. Once Commercial Crew missions start launching in earnest, GO Searcher will be SpaceX’s sole Crew Dragon spacecraft and astronaut recovery vessel, a new mission that required a number of visible modifications.
Three of those upgrades are especially obvious. First, a large helipad (pictured above) is being constructed on GO Searcher’s deck. That helipad is a critical addition that will enable the rapid transport of astronauts, recovery experts, technicians, doctors, and more (perhaps even press) to or from the ship, which will be at most a few hundred kilometers east of the Florida Coast during Dragon recovery operations, and likely closer to a few tens of kilometers.
.@SpaceX's East Coast #Dragon space capsule recovery vessel, GO Searcher, has finally reemerged after being off-grid past 10-days. Appears to be sporting new hardware. #SpaceXArmada #CrewedDragon ?: St John's Ship Yard, Palatka FL pic.twitter.com/CPR3P6DoWB
— Cowboy Dan (@CowboyDanPaasch) July 4, 2018
The next most obvious change to GO Searcher is a massive dome, likely dedicated to radar, Crew Dragon communications, or both. That dome and communications/radar array were installed over a several-week maintenance period spent at an East Coast drydocks facility, wrapping up with an early-July return to SpaceX’s Port Canaveral dock space.
Last but not least is the large metal structure at GO Searcher’s rear, a custom-built hydraulic lift designed specifically to lift Crew Dragon onto the recovery vessel’s deck. SpaceX has been extensively testing Dragon recovery operations with that particular rig throughout 2018, working with Commerical Crew astronauts, US Air Force representatives, and NASA officials to ensure that the orchestration of those Dragon and crew recovery operations are down to reflex by the time technicians are called upon to perform the same tasks with real humans and hardware.
SpaceX’s first uncrewed demonstration launch of Crew Dragon is scheduled for no earlier than November 2018, a date President and COO Gwynne Shotwell expressed considerable confidence in earlier this month. That spacecraft may end up landing on a giant inflatable cushion in order to ease refurbishment, as the same capsule will be reflown just a few months later for SpaceX’s in-flight abort test, designed to ensure that astronauts can be safely pulled away from a failing rocket at all points during launch.
Pending a successful uncrewed demo and in-flight abort test, SpaceX could become the first private company in history to launch humans into Earth orbit as early as April 2019.
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