NASA and SpaceX are progressing full steam ahead to an epic launch of the crewed Dragon spacecraft. Known as Demo-2, the mission is estimated to blast off in mid-to-late May, marking the first-ever flight of the Dragon with astronauts on board.
As part of that historic mission, two NASA astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — will launch to the International Space Station, where they will spend a still to be determined amount of time. The mission, deemed critical by NASA, is progressing as planned despite the coronavirus outbreak that’s spreading across the country.
To that end, NASA and SpaceX personnel, along with the crew, practiced essential safety drills and launch day procedures at the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and its Falcon 9 launcher, are equipped with numerous safety features designed to protect astronauts in the event of an emergency. And NASA wants to make sure they work.
One system — known as a launch escape system — was recently tested in-flight, proving that if something is wrong with the Falcon, the crews can be whisked away to safety by Dragon. But what if something goes wrong on the launch pad? The launchpad is equipped with a zipline that can be used to whisk astronauts quickly back to the ground should an emergency happen.
On Friday (April 3), SpaceX and NASA completed an important test of that system. Teams simulated an “emergency egress”, running through a series of steps designed to transport the astronauts off the pad, and ensure their safety in the event that a serious problem crops up prior to liftoff.
“Teams rehearsed locating injured personnel on the 265-foot-level of the launch tower, loading them into the pad’s slidewire baskets and safely descending the tower, then successfully loading the injured participants into Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles staged at the pad perimeter,” NASA officials wrote in an update.
This follows a series of simulations that the teams ran last month. They gathered in Firing Room 4, SpaceX HQ, and Johnson Space Center to run through launch simulations, ensuring the crew and launch control teams were ready for anything on the day of launch.
The flight is one for the history books as it marks the return of human spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. When the space shuttle program ended, NASA and other agencies around the world relied solely on Russia to ferry their astronauts to and from space. But that was only temporary as NASA turned to private companies to build its next generation of space taxis in 2014.
Ever since, the agency’s two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, have worked to build its own version of an astronaut transport. Following a successful uncrewed test flight, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will be the first to launch astronauts for NASA. If this mission goes well, the California-based spaceflight company will be certified to launch astronauts on a regular basis.
It’s first crew of four people — NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover Jr., and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi — are set to fly later this year or the beginning of 2021, if all goes as planned.
Boeing completed its uncrewed test flight in December of last year; however, its capsule experienced an inflight anomaly and was unable to reach the space station. Following an extensive review, Boeing has decided to repeat its uncrewed test flight before it launches people. That flight is expected for some time this fall.