One Giant Leap for Crewed Spaceflight

The first weekend of March brought new advancements to the world of crewed spaceflight to the Florida Space Coast, the United States, and the International Space Station (ISS). Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company, SpaceX, has been working closely with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program for years to develop a new type of capsule capable of supporting human rated spaceflight back to the International Space Station.

SpaceX was able to launch and support their brand new Crew Dragon capsule for it’s first demonstration mission (DM-1) from the historic Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. About 27 hours post launch, the company also supported autonomous docking procedures at the International Space Station.

Launching humans to space from United States’ soil is something that hasn’t happened in 8 years. With the Space Shuttle era coming to an end in 2011, the United States suspended its capability to support human rated spaceflight. Since 2011, astronauts from the United States have been expected to learn Russian, travel to Russia, and launch in a Russian Soyuz capsule to get to the ISS. The success of the DM-1 flight means that, although NASA will be continuing a relationship with the Russian space program, Roscosmos, in the very near future it will no longer need to solely rely on their launching capabilities to send astronauts to the ISS. This past weekend breathed life into a new era of human rated space flight for the United States.

SpaceX has previously conducted other tests on the path to crewed flight certification including a pad abort test that saw the Crew Dragon capsule leap off of a launch pad utilizing their SuperDraco thrusters mounted to the side of the capsule. It has also undergone drop tests from helicopters and splashdown tests into huge water tanks to test it’s parachute deployment and landing procedure systems. All previous tests, like DM-1, have been completed as a multi-step process to prove to NASA that the privatized space flight company is ready and capable of transporting crew to and from the ISS for the very first time in history.

SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launches atop a Falcon 9 Booster - Photo Credit: SpaceX

Unlike previously used human rated space craft, the Crew Dragon capsule is designed to transport crew to and from the ISS autonomously. This means that along with getting to the station safely, Crew Dragon had to demonstrate that it could complete maneuvers without human intervention. Following a brief stay docked to the ISS it will also be expected to autonomously depart and return for a splash down landing in the Atlantic Ocean. Although the astronauts flying aboard Crew Dragon in the near future will be able to take command of the capsule and intervene when necessary, it is expected that the capsule will do most of the heavy lifting. This was all demonstrated flawlessly as the capsule approached the ISS a mere 27 hours after launch and docked flawlessly.

Following autonomous docking procedures, the ISS crew were met by Ripley, SpaceX’s anthropomorphic test dummy that rode along in Crew Dragon to collect data, a tiny plush earth toy, and about 400 lbs of cargo. The ISS crew performed all expected docking procedures then presented a welcoming ceremony in which NASA Astronaut Anne McClain regarded DM-1 as the “new era of spaceflight.”

This first demonstration mission, however, is not the last step in the testing process that Crew Dragon has to complete in order to support human spaceflight for Demo Mission 2. According to Musk, later this spring Crew Dragon will once again be mated with a Falcon 9 booster and will make its way to space. Although, before it reaches orbit, it will have to successfully complete what is known as a high altitude abort test. Essentially, the Falcon 9 booster is expected to undergo catastrophic failure which should prompt the Crew Dragon to initiate life preserving measures. It will use it’s SuperDraco thrusters to separate and propel it away from the failing booster. It will then enter a ballistic trajectory and return for an emergency splash down in the Atlantic ocean.

Elon Musk with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken - Photo Credit: NASA

Following a successful abort test, Crew Dragon is expected to complete DM-2 this coming summer. When this occurs, two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will launch aboard Crew Dragon taking the place of Ripley. Following DM-2 two more NASA astronauts, Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, are expected to launch aboard Crew Dragon for a long duration mission to the ISS. This will then mark the beginning of operational missions for Crew Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

NASA Astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover - Photo Credit: NASA