SpaceX, NASA ready for first crewed launch from US soil in almost a decade

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will pilot Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) just two or three months from now. (NASA)

On Wednesday, March 18th, NASA invited media to attend SpaceX’s highly anticipated upcoming Demo-2 mission confirming that SpaceX would be the first of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) partners – and first private spaceflight company – to return crewed orbital spaceflight to American soil following an 8-year absence. In the media release, NASA states “this mission will be the return of human spaceflight launch capabilities to the United States and the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011.”

NASA and SpaceX are “currently targeting no earlier than mid-to-late May” for the debut DM-2 crewed mission and final end-to-end test of SpaceX’s human spaceflight system and the Crew Dragon capsule. A successful DM-2 should certify SpaceX to support regular operational crew missions.

The confirmation of a mid-to-late May launch date aligns with what SpaceX President and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell stated while speaking to reporters at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington D.C. earlier this month. Although the May time-frame does not meet the Q1 launch date previously anticipated by SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, it does serve a greater purpose for NASA.

Long-duration end-to-end test

As previously reported by Teslarati, DM-2 will send NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the International Space Station (ISS) for a suspected extended long-duration stay. Initially, the test demonstration flight was expected to only support a week or so stay at the ISS mirroring Crew Dragon’s previous DM-1 test flight in March of 2019. However, early in 2020, NASA and SpaceX discussed opening up the possibility of extending the duration of the test flight to reflect an operational length stay anywhere between 1.5 and 3 months. In support of a longer duration stay, Behnken and Hurley have spent the last few weeks continuously training for life and duty aboard the ISS at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

An extension in mission duration length would ensure that NASA is able to keep a presence of more than just one astronaut aboard the ISS when NASA astronaut crew members Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan depart the station in the late Spring of this year. According to Eric Berger of Ars Technica, a longer-duration mission not only ensures more NASA crew members on-station but could ensure that Behnken, a veteran spacewalker, could be there to support NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy with any extra-vehicular activity (EVA) should the need arise.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is guided by four parachutes as it approaches splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 miles off Florida’s east coast on March 8, 2019, after returning from the International Space Station on the Demo-1 mission. (NASA)

As a true end-to-end test to certify SpaceX’s human spaceflight capabilities, DM-2 will not only feature launch and autonomous docking operations with the ISS but splashdown landing and recovery procedures as well. DM-2 will serve as the ultimate test of Crew Dragon’s Mark 3 parachutes hopefully enabling Behnken and Hurley to return to Earth in gentle splashdown style in the Atlantic Ocean.

It had previously been debated which of the NASA CCP partners, SpaceX with the Crew Dragon or Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule, would likely be the first to return astronauts to the ISS. However, Boeing’s debut Starliner orbital flight test to the ISS in December of 2019 resulted in some surprising errors and a subsequent extensive investigation and list of sixty-one suggested corrective actions. Now, it is apparent that SpaceX will be the first private company to return crewed spaceflight to American soil after an almost decade long hiatus. It will also be the first to support NASA astronaut orbital spaceflight with a privately built crew capsule and rocket in just two to three short months.

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SpaceX, NASA ready for first crewed launch from US soil in almost a decade
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