SpaceX Crew Dragon NASA astronaut launch debut will carry a surprise payload

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoes final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in preparation for the Demo-2 launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Crew Dragon will carry Behnken and Hurley atop a Falcon 9 rocket, returning crew launches to the space station from U.S. soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011.

SpaceX has plans to include a surprise payload aboard Crew Dragon’s inaugural NASA astronaut launch, scheduled to lift off as soon as May 27th.

Per a NASA update published on May 13th, SpaceX and the space agency remain on track for what will arguably be the company’s single most important mission since its founding in 2002. Over the last 6-9 years, depending on how one counts, SpaceX and NASA have worked relentlessly to develop the next-generation Crew Dragon spacecraft, a dramatically different variant of the extensively flown Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1).

Although the spacecraft’s next launch will be both its and SpaceX’s first crewed launch ever, Crew Dragon has already completed two successful abort tests in 2015 and 2020, as well as a flawless orbital launch debut in March 2019. Just shy of 16 months and no shortage of technical hurdles since that uncrewed orbital debut, the third Crew Dragon spacecraft completed by SpaceX (capsule C206) and a brand new Falcon 9 rocket are ready to make history. Now, on top of the many historic milestones attached to Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be joined by a mosaic of Earth created by tens or even hundreds of thousands of students – both young and old – from around the world.

SpaceX plans to include a surprise payload on its first astronaut launch to celebrate the academic class of 2020. (SpaceX)

As of May 15th, per NASA’s latest blog post updates, SpaceX’s plethora of Crew Dragon Demo-2 hardware appears to be just shy of 100% ready for flight, at least from a technical perspective. As of May 12th, NASA and SpaceX officially cleared Crew Dragon’s interior and both astronauts’ space suits for flight, effectively closing out the crew capsule. That reusable Crew Dragon capsule was attached atop an expendable trunk section – responsible for providing power with a solar array and thermal management with radiators – around May 1st.

Crew Dragon capsule C206 was attached to its expendable trunk section around May 1st. (SpaceX)
Assigned to support Crew Dragon’s inaugural NASA astronaut launch, Falcon 9 booster B1058 is pictured here at Pad 39A on April 1st, 2020. (SpaceX)

Meanwhile, a brand new Falcon 9 Block 5 booster – B1058 – and expendable upper stage are just shy of ready to go inside SpaceX’s main Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A) hangar. Both were shipped from California to Florida only after both their Merlin engines and each integrated stage completed static fire acceptance tests in McGregor, Texas. As of April 1st, they appeared to be just shy of fully integrated, with B1058 missing only its titanium grid fins (and possibly landing legs).

Now T-12 days to launch, SpaceX could attach the spacecraft to that Falcon 9 rocket at any moment – if it hasn’t already. Before the rocket is fully ready for launch, SpaceX will need to perform a routine wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire test at Pad 39A – partially unique for Crew Dragon because the spacecraft attached during them. Given that Demo-2 is far from a normal SpaceX launch, Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 could roll out for that critical preflight test at any moment.

Crew Dragon C206 and Falcon 9 B1058 could roll out to Pad 39A at any point within the next ~5 days. (NASA)
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will pilot Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time ever. (NASA)

NASA has assigned astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to fly Crew Dragon’s inaugural crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and both astronauts have been training more or less 24/7 for the last 12-18 months, as well as advising SpaceX on Crew Dragon’s design. Now, according to SpaceX, those astronauts will be joined by a mosaic image comprised of thousands of photos uploaded by students around the world, ranging from kindergarten to graduate school and more.

Deemed “Class of 2020”, the project is meant to celebrate the class of 2020 – anyone and everyone set to graduate this year. Although unmentioned, the celebration comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic will almost certainly preclude or dramatically curtail (for good reason) large public gatherings for the sake of public health, disrupting or fully canceling graduation ceremonies around the world. SpaceX says that photos submitted by students will be added to a mosaic of Earth and “will be printed and flown aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft during its upcoming mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.”

An explorable mosaic is currently live on SpaceX’s official website and will eventually be printed and sent into orbit. (SpaceX)

While it won’t replace the events themselves, having a photo physically sent to space certainly won’t hurt for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of students around the world. If you are a student or know one, you can submit your photo at SpaceX.com/ClassOf2020 before the end of May 20th.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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