It has been nearly a month since SpaceX conducted a test fire of the Falcon 9 rocket which will launch the first Crew Dragon, and today’s NASA Flight Readiness Review at Kennedy Space Center in Florida concluded with a GO to proceed with a launch attempt as soon as 2:48am EST on Saturday, March 2.
Last month’s test fire marked the first time a crewed vehicle and ground systems were integrated together on pad 39A since space shuttle Atlantis last soared on the STS-135 mission almost 8 years ago.
The upcoming launch, Demo-1, will send the spacecraft on an uncrewed orbital shakedown & validation flight test to and from the International Space Station.
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And if the weather and schedule holds, the launch will make for a spectacular sight visible not only across much of Florida, but up a good portion of the East Coast too.
UPDATE FEB 26: The U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing’s official L-3 launch weather forecast calls for an 80% chance of favorable conditions for the March 2 launch attempt, with a 20% chance of some cloud cover violating launch commit criteria.
If delayed, another attempt will be made on Tuesday, March 5 at 1:30am EST (window confirmed with NASA). USAF notes a less favorable 60% GO for launch that night, as a cold front is expected to hover over Florida early next week.
“The board had a good discussion with the SpaceX, commercial crew and station engineering communities regarding the flight plan and redundancies built into the spacecraft systems and procedures,” says NASA. “They additionally discussed how the data from this flight test will be important for the next flight of Crew Dragon with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard.”
“While the review was ongoing, crew members on station utilized a computer-based trainer and reviewed procedures to refresh themselves with the Crew Dragon spacecraft systems, rendezvous and docking, ingress operations, changes to emergency responses, and vehicle departure,” added NASA.
The stakes are high. The agency’s need to end America’s reliance on Russia and have a homegrown crewed capability again is already years behind, and SpaceX and Boeing are competing for truly historic bragging rights to be the first to do it.
If all goes well for SpaceX on DM-1, it will clear the way to launching another critical (and mandatory) flight test this spring, the Crew Dragon Ascent Abort Test.
When astronauts begin launching to space aboard Crew Dragons and Falcon 9s, they will need an abort capability, not only to quickly escape an incident on the launch pad, but to escape an exploding rocket mid-air during launch and ascent too.
Such a need isn’t just critical, it is required by NASA, and was proven why in a scary incident a few months ago when the crew of Soyuz MS-10 experienced a failure with their rocket, forcing them into a dangerous high-G ballistic descent back to Earth.
DM-1 will provide key data on the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon’s performance, the supporting ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations.
About 10 minutes after launch, Crew Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit, and is scheduled to dock to the ISS on Sunday, March 3 at 5:55 a.m. EST with about 400 pounds of crew supplies and equipment
It will spend about five days attached to the ISS and remain until March 8, when it will then return to Earth with critical research samples. About five hours after Dragon leaves the station, it will conduct its deorbit burn, which lasts up to 10 minutes. It takes about 30 minutes for Dragon to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.
A suited-up ‘dummy’ will also be onboard the Demo-1 mission, which will be instrumented and monitored for data on how the flight would have affected a crew physically.
Roll out to the pad is scheduled for Feb 28, following a successful Launch Readiness Review to be held on Feb 27.
The rocket will also land offshore on a SpaceX Autonomous Spaceport Droneship (ASDS), not on the Cape at ‘Landing Zone-1’, because SpaceX wants to reserve the rocket’s full margin on the test flight.
Dragon will splashdown about 200 miles offshore from the launch site, where a SpaceX recovery ship will be waiting.
Only after completing both DM-1 and the Ascent Abort Test, will NASA give SpaceX the GO to fly America’s first astronauts from U.S soil since Atlantis, later this year on Demo-2 (DM-2) mission.
SpaceX has since 2012 launched cargo for NASA to and from the ISS under contract for the agency’s Commercial Resupply Services. In September 2014 NASA awarded a $2.6 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract to SpaceX to demonstrate delivery of crew to and from ISS.
Both commercial resupply and crew are part of NASA’s efforts beginning in the early 2000’s to stimulate development of privately built and operated American-made space vehicles for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.
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