CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla –Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is working to complete a variety of “firsts” to see that the company’s Dragon spacecraft is ready for its next, mission – flying to the International Space Station (ISS). This is no easy task. NASA however, has tentatively given the company the go-ahead to launch on Feb. 7.
The Dragon spacecraft currently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 or SLC-40 - is scheduled to fly the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS demo flight 2 & 3. Confused? Don’t be, SpaceX has requested and tentatively received permission to combine Demo flights 2 and 3 into a single mission. This flight could potentially see the first commercial spacecraft launch and berth to the International Space Station (ISS) in early 2012.
AmericaSpace recently sat down with NASA’s Program Manager of the Commercial Crew Program Office (C3PO) Alan Lindenmoyer. He discussed at length how well SpaceX is doing in terms of meeting NASA’s requirements for these two flights as well as what “firsts” the company would need to accomplish prior to lift-off.
AmericaSpace: Hi Alan, thanks for speaking with AmericaSpace today.
Lindenmoyer: “Thanks, it is my pleasure!”
AmericaSpace: What are some of the ‘firsts’ in terms of equipment and hardware that this Dragon spacecraft will need to accomplish its mission?
Lindenmoyer: “The most obvious and critical item that the Dragon spacecraft will need to conduct this flight is a communications system. There needs to be two-way communications between the space station and the spacecraft for the proximity operations.”
Video courtesy of SpaceX
AmericaSpace: What has SpaceX done it terms of communications systems that you view as unique?
Lindenmoyer: “SpaceX has developed their own radio, called the COTS UHF Communications Unit and NASA flew the transceiver portion of it on one of the last shuttle flights – so it is installed on the station and ready to go.”
AmericaSpace: What has SpaceX done in terms of ensuring that the ISS is safe as the Dragon approaches it? I ask, because of the collision of a Progress cargo vessel with the Mir space station back in 1997.
Lindenmoyer: “SpaceX has developed an entirely new suite of rendezvous and proximity operations sensors, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), they converted some commercial units into space-qualified LIDARs – that is going to be a really important first for SpaceX. These sensors will provide range and range-rate information as they approach the space station.”
AmericaSpace: Has SpaceX shown how it will provide accurate telemetry to NASA in terms of when Dragon closes in on the ISS?
Lindenmoyer: “All of that is looking really good, see there is a set of interface requirements we have provided to SpaceX in order to meet up with the space station and everyone of those requirements has to go through a formal verification flight review and they provide the data to us and we’re doing our final review and verification of that now.”
AmericaSpace: The station crew currently on orbit will have to grapple Dragon and berth it to the ISS, much as they would with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s HTV – correct?
Lindenmoyer: “Very similar, very similar to the HTV, correct, same approach, same grapple maneuvers, same port utilization at the front of the U.S. segment of station.”
AmericaSpace: In terms of having Dragon berth to the ISS, what types of equipment will this spacecraft have that its predecessor did not?
Lindenmoyer: “One of the things SpaceX needs to berth their spacecraft with the ISS is another ‘first’ for Dragon – the common berthing mechanism. This is the adapter that allows the Dragon to connect with the station. Yet another ‘first’ is the hatch that will be used on this iteration of Dragon.”
AmericaSpace: Naturally SpaceX is ensuring that its vital systems have backups…
Lindenmoyer: “SpaceX is flying redundant avionics – this way if there is a problem on approach they have a backup system to prevent a potential accident.”
Video courtesy of SpaceX
AmericaSpace: We’ve recently posted an article about the solar arrays, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lindenmoyer: “Sure, the solar arrays, another first for SpaceX on this flight, means that Dragon will have to jettison its solar array covers. You also have to consider that SpaceX has had to install a recharging system, coolant pumps, thermal radiators, circulation fan - all of this is new equipment that is associated with that power system.”
AmericaSpace: What is one aspect of this flight that you think is important that is sometimes overlooked?
Lindenmoyer: “One thing that has to occur on this flight is that the GNC (Guidance and Navigation Control) bay door must open to expose the navigation equipment, the star-trackers, the LIDARS and the thermal imagers. This door also has the grapple fixture on it, so having that door open is critical. If the door doesn’t open – it is not going to be a good day.”
AmericaSpace: Alan, how would you say that SpaceX is doing overall in meeting the objectives of the COTS program?
Lindenmoyer: “They are doing an amazing job of developing this capability, to build as reliable a system as they can, reducing the costs where they can, using existing technology and existing equipment and converting it for space station use – it’s simply amazing. One thing to consider is that developing a spacecraft – takes time. Whenever NASA has needed more information, analysis or testing – SpaceX has provided us with whatever we needed.”
AmericaSpace: Thanks for chatting with us today Alan, we’re looking forward to this launch.
The Dragon that will fly the COTS-2 / COTS-2 flight – has already completed a number of milestones - including being mated with the trunk that will carry unpressurized cargo to the ISS and having the solar arrays that will power the spacecraft on-orbit installed. SpaceX has opted to cut back on the number of tasks that this mission already has by moving back the delivery of an Orbcomm satellite to the middle of 2012.
Video courtesy of SpaceX