SpaceX is working to uncover routine man/machine interface issues between astronauts and its Dragon spacecraft. It is also pressing Falcon 9 rocket engine tests to prevent costly delays in satellite launches that make up 60% of the company’s business.
NASA and SpaceX are now targeting an April 30 launch window for liftoff of the first unmanned Dragon cargo flight to the International Space Station.
The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft could eventually carry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS depending upon the outcome of the NASA commercial competition between SpaceX and two other competitors.
SpaceX is also beginning tests at its McGregor, Texas facility of the SuperDraco rocket engine that will be embedded around the side of the Dragon spacecraft for up to 120,000 lb. of thrust for launch escape.
The company is also performing several firing tests every week of its upgraded Merlin 1D rocket engine to replace the Merlin 1C’s currently used. SpaceX hopes to make a first launch from its new launch pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. with the uprated engines by October.
The Merlin 1D’s are necessary for extra thrust needed for SpaceX to boost satellite payloads into geosynchronous transfer orbit starting in 2013.
A recently completed NASA Crew Trial at its Hawthorne, Calif. plant is one of two planned crew tests being done as part of SpaceX work to build a prototype Dragon crew cabin for future human flight operations the company says.
The engineering prototype used in the test includes seven seats as well as representations of crew accommodations such as lighting, environmental control and life support systems, displays, cargo racks, and other interior systems.
During the test, SpaceX and NASA evaluators, including four NASA astronauts, participated in human factors assessments which covered entering and exiting Dragon under both normal and emergency cases, as well as reach and visibility evaluations.
According to the company, the crew test enabled SpaceX to “demonstrate that our new crew cabin design will work well for astronauts in both nominal and off-nominal scenarios. It also provided our engineers with the opportunity to gain valuable feedback,” SpaceX said.
The seven seats mount to strong, lightweight supporting structures attached to the pressure vessel walls. Each seat can hold an adult up to 6 feet 5 inches tall, 250 lbs, and has a liner that is custom-fit for each crewmember.
According to SpaceX, Dragon has so much interior volume, that an entire Russian Soyuz descent module could fit inside its pressure vessel.
In addition to announcing a new launch date, SpaceX celebrated its 10th birthday this week. The company was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk and was awarded the COTS contract with NASA in 2006. In 2008 SpaceX delivered its first payload to orbit, a Malaysian satellite. In late 2010, the Dragon spacecraft was launched into orbit on a Falcon 9 (below) from Cape Canaveral and successfully retrieved back on earth, making SpaceX the first private company to complete such a flight.