Decade-Long Crew Dragon Program Stands Ready for Maiden Mission (Part 2)

Falcon 9 on Pad 39A with the first Crew Dragon & the company’s new astronaut walkway. Photo Credit: SpaceX

In the small hours of Saturday morning (2 March), a decade-long effort to restore U.S. human spaceflight launch capability to American soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era will take a significant step forward, as SpaceX and NASA deliver the first Crew Dragon on an unpiloted test-flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff of the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 booster is targeted for 2:49 a.m. EST, promising to turn night into day, figuratively and literally, on America’s human spaceflight aspirations.

Assuming an on-time launch, the Demo-1 spacecraft will autonomously dock onto International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2, at the forward end of the space station’s Harmony node, at 6:05 a.m. EST Sunday, 3 March. It will remain attached to the ISS for a few days, with undocking, deorbit and parachute-aided splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on the 8th.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching NASA’s CRS-16 mission to the ISS from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in December 2018. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Although SpaceX has much heritage with the cargo variant of its Dragon spacecraft—having successfully launched 16 missions to the ISS between May 2012 and last December—the Crew Dragon has proven a far different concept to bring to maturity. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace article, SpaceX initially won funding to develop its spacecraft in April 2011, when it received $75 million from NASA through the Commercial Crew Development solicitation process (CCDev). The Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services organization was then selected as a Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) finalist in August 2012, before being picked alongside Boeing for the coveted Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts in September 2014.

Under the terms of those contracts, SpaceX and Boeing would each fly a piloted test-flight and at least two long-duration crew-rotation flights to the ISS, known as “Post-Certification Missions” (PCM). At that time, it was hoped that the first flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner might occur as soon as late 2017, but a multitude of technical and funding problems conspired against the Commercial Crew Program.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, center, and Sunita “Suni” Williams sit inside a Crew Dragon mockup during an evaluation visit for the Crew Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Only months after the CCtCap decision, in May 2015 SpaceX triumphantly completed a rapid Pad Abort Test (PAT) of a mockup Crew Dragon from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. As detailed by AmericaSpace at the time—through a two-part history/review article and portfolio of imagery—the 102-second test saw Crew Dragon boost itself away from a ground-level platform and achieve a peak altitude of 3,561 feet (1,187 meters), under the 120,000 pounds (54,400 kg) of thrust afforded by the eight SuperDraco thrusters mounted in its sidewalls. As planned, Crew Dragon’s pressurized capsule (inhabited by a heavily-instrumented crash-test dummy) separated from the unpressurized trunk at altitude, before descending to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean under three red-and-white parachutes.

The sheer speed of the PAT, and the power of the SuperDracos—which can provide emergency crew-escape capability whilst on the pad during Falcon 9 engine ramp-up and at all phases of ascent, through second-stage flight, thereby ensuring no “black zones” in terms of survivability—was not lost on AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian and John Studwell, who observed, photographed and documented the May 2015 exercise. “I was forced to frame the remote cameras ‘wider’ than usual, just to give myself more chance of actually capturing a shot or two of Dragon getting off the pad,” Mr. Killian told me at the time. Added Mr. Studwell: “With a rocket, those first five seconds or so is a slow ascent, but Crew Dragon…will jump off and be at altitude and near engine cutoff in the same amount of time. Since there is a delay between the sound-trigger and the camera’s first shot, and considering the one second Dragon will be in frame of the remotes, I’m hoping just to get anything!” AmericaSpace’s PAT imagery portfolio can be found here.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon engineering test article taking flight for its Pad Abort Test (PAT) on May 6, 2015. The PAT demonstration was a critical milestone in the company’s aim to begin transporting astronauts to and from the ISS safely. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

However, Congressional underfunding of the Commercial Crew Program, which led to thinly-veiled disgust from then-NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, forced continued reliance upon Russia to provide seats aboard its Soyuz vehicles to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station during the gap in U.S. launch capability. By April 2017, the very year that Commercial Crew should have begun flying its inaugural missions, as much time had elapsed since the last shuttle mission as had previously passed between the return of Apollo-Soyuz in July 1975 and the first flight of the shuttle program in April 1981.

Waiting for Commercial Crew to come online, in other words, would yield a far longer “gap” than ever before in U.S. human spaceflight history. Assuming that veteran NASA flyers Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch this coming July, a full eight years will have elapsed since America last launched humans to space from its native soil.

The Crew Dragon mockup parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean, after a smooth Pad Abort Test (PAT) in May 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

A month after the completion of the PAT, in June 2015, SpaceX was awarded a $30 million milestone payment from NASA as part of its CCtCap certification. And only weeks after that, in July, NASA formally identified veteran astronauts Suni Williams, Doug Hurley, Eric Boe and Bob Behnken as the first members of a Commercial Crew “cadre” to support the continuing development and testing of both Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner being built by the other CCtCap contract finalist, Boeing. In November 2015, NASA awarded SpaceX the first of its guaranteed PCMs, followed by a second in July 2016.

However, the targeted maiden launch in late 2017 had fallen increasingly into doubt. “If NASA does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap contracts in fiscal year 2016 and beyond,” it was cautioned, “the agency will be forced to delay future milestones for both U.S. companies and continue its sole reliance on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station.” Nevertheless, progress continued and in August 2016 Expedition 48 spacewalkers Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins installed the Boeing-built IDA-2 onto the forward end of the station’s Harmony node, ready to receive its Commercial Crew visitors in due course.

During an August 2016 spacewalk, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins positions herself for work at the nadir face of PMA-2, with the white-shrouded mass of IDA-2 visible at center. Photo Credit: NASA TV

Last August, with significant fanfare, Vice-President Mike Pence—who also chairs the revitalized National Space Council—announced the names of nine veteran and first-time astronauts to fly the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner piloted test flights and the first PCMs for both organizations. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both of whom have logged two previous spaceflights during the shuttle era, would ride the first piloted Crew Dragon, whilst former shuttle commander and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson and NASA flyers Eric Boe and Nicole Mann would crew the first piloted Starliner.

Rounding out the group, astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover would fly the first SpaceX PCM and Suni Williams and Josh Cassada would do likewise for the first Boeing PCM. Assignments were updated last month, however, when Boe was removed from his slot, due to a medical issue, and replaced by seasoned shuttle and ISS veteran Mike Fincke, who was until recently assistant to the chief of the Astronaut Office for Commercial Crew. Fincke’s former role has been taken up by Boe.

View inside a Crew Dragon mockup. Photo Credits: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace / SpaceX

In the dying weeks of 2018, for the first time, a definitive target date was set for Demo-1, although hopes of launching in January 2019 ultimately came to nought. Yet the program was close to fruition and the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Upgraded Falcon 9 booster was transported to Pad 39A and its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines were successfully test-fired on 24 January.

Launch was provisionally rescheduled for late in February, with fears of a slight slippage into early March. At last week’s Flight Readiness Review (FRR), NASA and SpaceX officials expressed their satisfaction that, at long last, all systems were ready to go. Speaking at the post-FRR media conference, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders recalled a recent walk out to the pad and the spacecraft with Hurley and Behnken and a dawning realization that years of effort—and more than a fair share of frustration, no doubt—were about to pay off.

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