SpaceX's first NASA astronaut launch closer than ever as spacecraft and rocket near Florida

Crew Dragon arrived at the International Space Station on March 3rd, 2019 during Demo-1, its inaugural orbital launch. (NASA/Oleg Kononenko)

According to an engineer’s February presentation, SpaceX is on the brink of shipping its first NASA astronaut-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center – arguably the company’s biggest milestone yet on the path to human spaceflight.

In the last year, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program has undeniably stumbled a few times, suffering challenging parachute failures and the catastrophic explosion of the first flight-proven Crew Dragon capsule. However, the year has been filled with far more successes. By all appearances, Crew Dragon’s parachute issues have been completely solved, while SpaceX successfully static fired an upgraded Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco engines before launching a flawless in-flight abort (IFA) test just last month.

Prior to all of this, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft completed what NASA deemed a “flawless” and “phenomenal” orbital launch debut, docking with and departing the space station without issue before safely reentering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Now, ten months after that flawless debut, SpaceX is perhaps just a week or two away from reaching a major milestone ahead of its first NASA astronaut launch.

In just a few short months, this scene could be repeated – but with NASA astronauts at Crew Dragon’s helm. (NASA)

Part of some kind of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) event on February 1st or 2nd, SpaceX Director of Vehicle Integration Christopher Couluris gave an exceptionally insightful presentation that was apparently recorded and (very) briefly available on YouTube. Aside from a great deal of new and useful information on Falcon booster reusability, Starship manufacturing, and more, Couluris also teased some major news for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX has finally set the date for Crew Dragon's In-Flight Abort test. (Teslarati - Pauline Acalin)
Excluding Falcon 9, all pieces of SpaceX’s first astronaut-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft are visible in this one frame. (Teslarati – Pauline Acalin)
Assigned to Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 astronaut launch debut, SpaceX Falcon 9 booster B1058 successfully completed a routine static fire test back in August 2019. (SpaceX)

In short, Couluris revealed that the Crew Dragon spacecraft – capsule C206 and an expendable trunk – assigned to SpaceX’s ‘Demo-2’ NASA astronaut launch debut could arrive at the company’s Florida Dragon processing facilities as early as mid-February, just a week or two from now. At the same time, comments the SpaceX engineer made about the number of SpaceX rocket boosters currently in Florida heavily implied that the Falcon 9 rocket assigned to said astronaut launch debut is already at KSC Launch Complex 39A (or at least nearby).

In other words, after Crew Dragon arrives, SpaceX will have all the hardware on hand and ready for its first NASA astronaut launch – arguably the single most important mission in the company’s history. Barring calamity, all that will remain is a few weeks of processing and an indeterminately long period of NASA/SpaceX reviews and paperwork. Elon Musk recently stated that he was confident that Crew Dragon Demo-2 would be fully ready to launch as early as April 2020, although May or June are also a strong possibility.

Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon stand vertical at Pad 39A for the second time ever on January 17th, 2020. (Richard Angle)

Funded by NASA and designed and built by SpaceX, Crew Dragon (Dragon 2) is an upgraded version of the company’s workhorse Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1) spacecraft, which has successfully performed 18 International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions in just eight years. While there’s a chance that SpaceX will ultimately use Crew Dragon for its own needs, like private orbital tourism, the spacecraft’s primary purpose is to routinely carry NASA astronauts to and from the Space Station – a capability the US has not had since NASA and Congress prematurely killed the Space Shuttle in 2011.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – along with Boeing’s delayed Starliner – is intended to fill a void the Space Shuttle left in 2011. (Richard Angle)

Originally intended to launch as early as 2017, both SpaceX and Boeing suffered major delays as they worked through the many challenges associated with human spaceflight and grappled with several years of egregious Congressional underfunding.

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SpaceX's first NASA astronaut launch closer than ever as spacecraft and rocket near Florida
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