NASA, SpaceX approve test flight next week of crew capsule

Gwen Vasquez
February 26, 2019

Launch time for the Falcon 9 rocket is 2:48am ET (07:48 UTC), from Kennedy Space Center.

Next week's mission is considered a critical milestone in NASA's $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Program, meant to end the agency's reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, now the only operational astronaut-transportation system in the world since the space shuttle's retirement eight years ago. Those and other risks present "serious challenges" to SpaceX's launch schedule, including a possible manned flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft this summer.

SpaceX crewed mission Demo-2 is now slated for July 2019 and Boeing's Starliner mission for August 2019. Engineers also want to ensure that there is enough margin in the Dragon's parachutes for a safe landing under various conditions, and study some concerns about the propellant feed system in the Dragon spacecraft.

"Following a full day of briefings and discussion, NASA and SpaceX are proceeding with plans to conduct the first uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon on a mission to the International Space Station", NASA said in a statement announcing its decision.

If the March 2 launch goes well, NASA and SpaceX will review the test flight data and determine if any changes need to be made.

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One of those risks is SpaceX's rocket canister, which has been redesigned since one caused a devastating explosion in 2016 after bursting inside a Falcon 9 rocket's liquid oxygen tank.

"But we know the hardware is good enough to go do this demonstration flight", he said. Two NASA astronauts will be in the spacecraft then, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

Assuming no major problems develop - and assuming an in-flight abort test goes well this spring - astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley hope to blast off in a Crew Dragon this summer to kick off the first launch of USA astronauts aboard an American-made rocket from US soil since the shuttle program ended in July 2011. SpaceX recovery crews stationed nearby will pull the capsule onto a ship and haul it back to Port Canaveral for detailed post-flight inspections. The capsule will be weighted similarly to how a Crew Dragon will be when it has astronauts on board, and it will also be carrying a test dummy, suited up in one of SpaceX's custom flight suits.

The final now contracted U.S. Soyuz flight is scheduled for launch in July.

When Boeing or SpaceX launch NASA astronauts it will mark the first time an American has launched to low Earth orbit from USA soil since 2011. Boeing won a $4.2 billion contract to build the CST-100.

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