SpaceX's Shotwell Addresses Contamination Concerns Previously Reported by News Outlets

SpaceX's Dragon capsule berthed at the International Space Station (ISS) during the CRS-2 mission in early 2013.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell discussed the upcoming CRS-3 mission on The Space Show. Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is seen berthed at the International Space Station (ISS) during the CRS-2 mission in early 2013. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell discussed the upcoming CRS-3 mission on The Space Show. Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell was featured on the March 21 episode of The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston days before her company’s scheduled CRS-3 commercial resupply launch. In this episode, she discussed contamination concerns that were reported by many space news outlets (including AmericaSpace) following the March 13 scrub of the CRS-3 launch, which was meant to take place in the early morning hours of Sunday, March 16. Shotwell also discussed other SpaceX-related topics of interest.

In an article published March 21 on AmericaSpace, it was reported that the CRS-3 launch was delayed “after workers discovered contamination on the beta cloth shields in Dragon’s unpressurized external trunk [a fabric used in multi-layer insulation for thermal protection].” Furthermore, the article stated that “[f]our High Definition cameras for the ISS and other critical payloads, such as the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science [OPALS] communications testbed, are stored in the trunk, making them susceptible to the contamination and forcing the delay so immediate actions could be taken to fix the problem.”

According to an article on NASASpaceflight.com, it is believed a sewing machine may have been the culprit of the possible oil contamination present on cloth shields inside the Dragon capsule’s trunk (these shields are present to protect the capsule’s payloads).

Shotwell stated: “ … We [Shotwell and SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk] were working four issues. We were struggling on some buffering data transfer with Houston. We wanted a little more time to work with the range on trajectory. We are going to try to do some reentry and landing burns on the first stage. My operations crew was in a time crunch for Dragon, which is a very new Dragon. Finally, we did notice stains on the impact shielding [the beta-cloth shields previously mentioned].”

Due to these issues, it was decided to err on the side of caution, and the launch was scrubbed. She added: “ … We need to do everything we can to make sure this mission is successful, and go work these issues. With respect to the contamination, it was oil from the manufacturing process. It was in very regular patterns, and it didn’t show up right away when the blankets were manufactured. Luckily, our pre-encapsulation checks caught it. We have a really hard-working team – SpaceX, NASA, the payload guys, and Boeing, as well.”

Seen stowed against the sides of the Falcon 9 v1.1, it is hoped that the four deployable landing legs will enable the vehicle's first stage to perform a gentle splashdown. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Seen stowed against the sides of the Falcon 9 v1.1, it is hoped that the four deployable landing legs will enable the vehicle’s first stage to perform a gentle splashdown. SpaceX is currently exploring its options in regard to making parts of its rockets reusable. Photo Credit: SpaceX

It was decided that the oil did not pose a threat to Dragon’s payloads. “In the end, we decided to use it as is. It did not add substantial risk to the optical payloads that are located in the trunk. It’s worth saying the trunk never had any contamination control requirements on it, so taking on these optical payloads, we were all leaning forward to make this work. So that’s probably why you see some of the jitter on the contamination issues,” she emphasized.

Shotwell also discussed talk of SpaceX utilizing its launch vehicles in the future to propel United States Air Force spy satellites into orbit. The company hopes to get the ball rolling concerning this objective by late 2016, with launches originating from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB. She also discussed reusing stages on the Falcon 9 rocket; pending more testing, she stated the company intends to reuse parts of “the vehicle we’re currently flying” in an effort to make spaceflight more affordable. She stated that SpaceX hopes to re-fly a stage next year and hopes to land one on land this year. However, she cautiously stated, “That’s optimistic … we still have a lot of work to do.”

She also discussed SpaceX being touted for possible future Mars missions and a possible timeline for manned spaceflights (the goal of Commercial Crew is to have crews returning to low-Earth orbit by late 2016 to early 2017).

SpaceX is currently on-track to make its CRS-3 launch Sunday, March 30, at 10:49 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) Wednesday, April 2, with capture taking place at 7:04 a.m. This will be the first Dragon flight since March 2013’s CRS-2 mission, and it will be the first to utilize fold-out landing legs to aid the Falcon 9’s first stage in making a gentler splashdown. This is hoped to help the company in its aim to make sections of the rocket reusable. SpaceX also has a very busy year in terms of launching commercial payloads and satellites.

Stay tuned to AmericaSpace, as we will have a live webcast of the SpaceX CRS-3 launch on our website and on-site coverage direct from Cape Canaveral.

 

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