KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX continues to take breathtaking leaps in terms of returning the United States’ ability to launch astronauts from American soil. Plans to finalize launch day operations are underway and the NewSpace company is working with NASA to ensure key launch systems are ready to support flight.
The Demo-2 flight is expected to see NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley travel to the International Space Station in the spring of 2019. As was noted on The Verge, this will place crewed test flights for both SpaceX and the other contractor working on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner, around the same time.
One of the key differences between the two is that SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion, while Boeing receiving $4.2 billion. SpaceX completed a pad abort test in 2015, while Boeing hopes to be able to achieve this milestone possibly this year. Boeing’s abort test had been scheduled for this summer, but it was delayed due to a leak of highly-toxic hydrazine from one of the abort engines. The leak occurred after the command was issued to shut down the engines. Several of the abort engine valves failed to fully close.
As early as July 11, 2018, NASA internally believed (as noted on Ars Technica) that Boeing was in the lead in terms of conducting the first uncrewed and crewed test flights. Technical and other issues have seen SpaceX’s Crew Dragon catch up to the aerospace titan’s offering, with Crew Dragon currently scheduled for an April 2019 flight and Starliner set for “mid-2019.” The first unpiloted test flights are currently targeting November 2018 and “early 2019,” respectively.
In terms of Crew Dragon, not everything has gone off without a hitch. The Sept. 1, 2016, explosion that saw the loss of both a Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the $184 million Amos-6 satellite it carried caused NASA officials to raise strong concerns about SpaceX’s fueling procedures. The concerns about the timeline of the crew and fuel loading procedures stem from the Falcon 9 composite overwrap pressure vessels, known as COPVs. It was the COPVs that were determined to be the cause of the Amos-6 accident.
SpaceX plan is to fuel its Falcon 9 after the astronauts have boarded Dragon, the same as the company has done during previous flights with uncrewed payload. While NASA has signed off on this procedure, known as “load and go,” for the time being, it is contingent on the Hawthorne, California-based company successfully completing the space agency’s certification process to prove any potential risks are within acceptable limits.
NASA requires that SpaceX conduct five “crew loading procedures” to help the agency gain a better understanding of the logistics of how this part of the operation would work during an actual mission.
“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program via an agency-issued release. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”
The series of events to ensure that SpaceX’s rocket and spacecraft are ready to support crewed operations is still ongoing. After each milestone SpaceX completes along the way, NASA will “review, verify, and evaluate” the systems that have been tested. Astronauts are currently expected to board Crew Dragon two hours ahead of liftoff with the launch system inactive. Ground crews would then depart and the vehicle’s escape systems would be activated (about 38 minutes before launch). Shortly thereafter, fueling of the rocket would start.
The Falcon 9 uses RP-1 (a highly-refined version of kerosene) along with liquid oxygen as its propellant. This would be loaded into the rocket starting at about 35 minutes before the start of the flight. If anything were to appear to be outside of what is considered normal, launch operations can be stopped automatically. Should anything go awry, the Crew Dragon’s launch escape system could be activated to ferry the astronauts away to safety.
Featured Image: VSpaceX