It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is close to its first launch. SpaceX says it is currently planning for the initial test flight of its crewed Dragon capsule next month. This comes after a series of setbacks as both SpaceX and Boeing trudged through the testing and review process that will eventually return manned spaceflight to the US.
SpaceX confirmed this past week that it completed a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the Dragon II capsule into orbit. In a static fire test (see the video below), the rocket remains tethered to the launch tower so it can’t go anywhere while the engines light up. Next month, the rocket will be free to shoot for the moon. Well, for the International Space Station (ISS).
The Dragon II capsule (see above) is a modified version of the Dragon that has been flying uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS over the last few years. However, NASA’s testing and certification process is understandably much more stringent than the cargo contract. SpaceX has experienced a few launch failures, but the manned flights will include additional safety measures like a launch abort system. NASA was initially hesitant to allow astronauts aboard the spacecraft during fueling, which is SpaceX’s preferred process. However, the agency relented after additional design reviews.
The February test will cover all parts of a typical mission to the ISS for ferrying crew back and forth. The mission, known as SpX-DM1, will begin with a launch from historic launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. The Falcon 9 booster will release the second stage before heading back down to Earth (it’s unclear if SpaceX will attempt to land that booster).
Static fire test complete—targeting February launch from historic Launch Complex 39A for Crew Dragon’s first demonstration flight! pic.twitter.com/sJF24U3UOM
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 25, 2019
The Dragon capsule will head into orbit and conduct automated docking with the ISS where it will remain for several weeks. Finally, it will re-enter the atmosphere and splash down in the ocean. SpaceX has been working on propulsive landing technology, but NASA won’t let the company used that on crewed flights just yet. The company plans to reuse that booster later for an in-flight launch abort test.
SpaceX had initially targeted the DM1 launch for December 2016. Delays have pushed the Commercial Crew Program back repeatedly, and time is running out. NASA only has seats aboard Russian Soyuz capsules booked through the end of the year. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule is a bit more delayed thanks to a fuel leak discovered in testing last year. Boeing hopes its first demonstration flight will take place in March. Crewed flights with both vehicles could start as soon as this summer.
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