SpaceX, NASA practice astronaut recovery ahead of Crew Dragon’s crewed launch debut

On August 13th and 15th, SpaceX and NASA teams completed several critical Crew Dragon-related rehearsals, practicing methods of safely extracting astronauts from the capsule and evacuating them to land-based medical facilities via helicopter. (NASA)

SpaceX and NASA teams continue to prepare for Crew Dragon’s inaugural crewed launch (Demo-2) to the International Space Station (ISS) slated to possibly – but not likely – occur by year’s end.

On Tuesday, an official NASA Twitter account published images of teams from SpaceX and the space agency performing a full rehearsal of crew recovery and extraction procedures, including the duo of NASA astronauts scheduled to fly first on SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft.

The rehearsal took place at the Trident Basin in Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard GO Searcher, one of two East Coast recovery vessels SpaceX uses for Crew Dragon recoveries.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley board the SpaceX GO Searcher ship at the Trident Basin in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 13, 2019 to rehearse extracting astronauts from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A high-fidelity mockup of Crew Dragon was used to better familiarize all members involved with the process of safely extricating astronauts from the SpaceX spacecraft. This is the first time that multiple SpaceX and NASA teams have fully integrated to work aboard the ship and simulate the recovery process. The teams practiced helping the astronauts exit the capsule and simulated receiving medical attention that may be necessary when in a hypothetical emergency return from the ISS.

NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, along with teams from NASA and SpaceX, rehearse crew extraction from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

This practice run follows a recent full dress rehearsal of suit-up and pre-flight procedures that were conducted at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Following that dress rehearsal, SpaceflightNow.com reported that a newly installed slide wire emergency egress system was tested at Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida where the crewed DM-2 Mission will be launching from.

Crew Dragon’s Demonstration Mission 1 (Demo-1) launch presented SpaceX with a full-fidelity opportunity to hone capsule retrieval practices, but SpaceX teams did not practice astronaut extraction from the capsule – Demo-1 flight was uncrewed aside from an Anthropomorphic Test Device (i.e. dummy) nicknamed Ripley. The rehearsal on Tuesday served as familiarization for teams to extract astronauts from the capsule once it has been recovered aboard GO Searcher while still docked.

On Thursday, August 15th, two days after the above capsule extraction rehearsal, NASA once more posted photos of GO Searcher-related rehearsal operations, this time involving a drill in which astronauts needed to be airlifted immediately to land-based medical facilities. According to local observers and confirmed by the official NASA photos, a helicopter did indeed land on GO Searcher’s dedicated helipad before quickly departing with medically sensitive cargo. Searcher has its own simple medical facilities onboard but they are only capable of dealing with fairly routine concerns, focused primarily on aiding astronauts who are going from half a year in microgravity to full Earth gravity.

While there are still many milestones to get through before Crew Dragon can take flight for the second time, these numerous rehearsals of critical launch and recovery procedures are incredibly important, helping SpaceX and NASA teams hone their working relationship as both prepare to enter a new stage of the Commercial Crew Program. Demo-1 astronaut Col. Bob Behnken summarized it nicely, stating that, “each of these exercises puts us one step closer to fulfilling NASA’s mission of returning astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil.”

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