NASA, SpaceX enters the critical month of May on track to end the gap

With the news SpaceX completed the 27th and the final test of the upgraded Mark-3 parachutes for the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the day of a series of flagship news conferences, there is growing excitement ahead of the return to US domestic crew launch capability as soon as the end of this month.  SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission-2 (DM-2) mission duration also received an update, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noting it will be extended from its shorter planned stay.

“We have extended planned length of Demo-2 from standard test flight to ensure Behnken & Hurley can participate as Expedition 63 crew members,” he noted.

Bridenstine also repeated his message that NASA does not want tourists and other space fans to travel to the Kennedy Space Center for the DM-2 launch due to COVID-19 concerns. Instead, he hopes the public would follow the mission at home on NASA TV.

The recent MK3 parachute test. Photo Credit: SpaceX.

The crew will consist of Doug Hurley as “Spacecraft Commander” and Bob Behnken as “Joint Operations Commander”.

Hurley previously flew on STS-127 and the final Shuttle mission, STS-135 in 2011. Behnken previously flew on STS-123 and STS-130. Behnken also was assigned to STS-400 which was a contingency rescue mission that was never needed.

“Just yesterday (April 30), we had an all-day meeting doing our staged Operational Readiness Review for the SpaceX Demo-2 launch,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA Program Manager, International Space Station.

“I am very pleased to announce that we passed that review successfully and moving on to our subsequent milestones culminating in a Flight Readiness Review and Launch Readiness Reviews in the very near future.”

It was revealed during the press conference that one issue from the Mission Elapsed Time (MET) anomaly – which occurred on the maiden flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, Orbital Flight Test-1 – did impact on the preparations for the Crew Dragon’s flight.

SpaceX was directed by NASA to make sure that Crew Dragon could lock on to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) network after launch, as already proven during the previous DM-1 mission in 2019.

“I want to make it clear that this is one of many exciting and hard days we have in front of us. Gwynne’s team and my team are intelligently working on getting the vehicles ready,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA Program Manager, Commercial Crew Program – pointing to numerous milestones yet to be passed in the run-up to launch.

This includes May 4, when the crew will participate in a Crew Dry Dress Rehearsal for the launch, similar to the one prior to the In-Flight Abort test in January.

Hurley and Behnken stand next to one of the two Tesla Model Xs. Photo Credit: NASA.

The crew will enter quarantine starting May 16 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. After a period of time, Hurley and Behnken will fly east to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where they will enter their stay in the Crew Quarters.

Crew Quarters is where NASA mission crews stay prior to launch. The complex has been renovated from its configuration from the Shuttle Program.

The launch of Demo-2 is currently scheduled for May 27.

“We have worked with NASA since 2006, and all that work is culminating in this historic event that we have up and coming in the next few weeks. My heart is up to here (throat) and I think it is going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station,” added SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell.

Hurley and Behnken will enter the suit-up room and will don their SpaceX launch and entry suits at about four hours prior to launch. Around three hours before launch, the crew will depart the Crew Quarters inside one of the two white Tesla Model X cars, an expected move from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The vehicles will be located in the middle of a motorcade for security reasons, like Shuttle missions in the past.

The two Teslas will then arrive at Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The crew and their support teams will then take an elevator ride up to the 255 foot level of the Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

The Gaseous Oxygen arm (GOX) used to be located at the 255 foot level. Hurley and Behnken previously entered the Space Shuttle Orbiter at the Orbiter Access Arm (OAA) on their missions on the 195 foot level on the FSS.

Both the FSS and the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) served Shuttle launches for the program until the conclusion of it in 2011.

Since then, the RSS has been demolished, a crew access arm has been installed, and the slidewire baskets have been raised to the same level that the crew access arm is located. Some other cosmetic modifications have also been made.

The astronauts will then enter the spacecraft and the hatch will be subsequently closed. At the T-38 minute mark, the crew arm will be retracted. This will be followed by the activation of the abort system.

The DM-2 mission will be using a SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket. Specifically, booster 1058.1 will be used and sports special livery. The side of the booster will feature the NASA worm logo along with the NASA meatball and an American flag. The other side will feature the standard SpaceX livery. The meatball and flag will also be on both sides of the second stage.

At the T-35 minute mark, the fueling will begin, a procedure that SpaceX calls “load and go.” This is different from the Space Shuttle, which was fully fueled when the crew arrived.

At 4:32 pm EST, Hurley and Behnken will launch from LC-39A on Crew Dragon C206. If there is a scrub on launch day, there is a backup launch window scheduled for May 30.

“We recently had a video put together by the team down in Florida on the SpaceX side that combined the video of the ascent of both the Demo-1 mission and the In-Flight Abort mission with the audio. That combination of video and audio let us hear all of the cues from engine start to engine shutdown to parachute deploys which was a real cool thing to be able to see,” said Astronaut Bob Behnken.

“We are expecting a smooth ride, but we are expecting a loud ride, especially at the beginning of the mission.”

The final space shuttle launch, STS-135

An advancement from the Shuttle era – which had three types of abort modes, Return To Launch Site (RTLS), Trans Atlantic Landing (TAL), and Abort to Orbit, each with their own varying levels of risk – the crew on Dragon have a “safe way out” through the ascent.

“This thing (Crew Dragon) has end to end abort capability. That perspective for me is huge compared to Shuttle where there were black zones. There were scenarios where it didn’t really matter if you had the right combination of failures, you were likely not going survive an abort,” added Hurley.

The Crew Dragon is similar to the Space Shuttle in the way that the weather in the recovery zones may cause scrubs. So, the chances of a scrub are significantly higher than a Cygnus launch from Wallops or a Cargo Dragon launch to the station.

Hurley and Behnken next to LC-39A prior to the IFA test in January. Photo Credit: NASA.

Booster 1058.1 will attempt an autonomous landing on the SpaceX drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” downrange of the Kennedy Space Center in the Atlantic Ocean.

If Dragon launches as planned on May 27, the spacecraft should arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) on May 28.

Like all other crewed NASA missions,  Crew Dragon flights will have a CAPCOM controller from NASA talking to the crew during the mission. But, SpaceX will also introduce the CORE position which will be a group of SpaceX people who can talk to the crew at any time.

Crew Dragon will approach the ISS from the nadir or Earth-facing side. The spacecraft will then enter the Keep Out Sphere and the Approach Ellipsoid. The spacecraft will then approach the ISS from the forward direction.

A simulation showing Crew Dragon approaching the ISS. Photo Credit: NASA TV.

Around 200 meters from the ISS, Hurley will take the controls to test the manual control capabilities of the spacecraft during approach if the automation failed. After holding in that position, the spacecraft will then autonomously take control for the rest of the docking process, which will include a final go, no-go poll 20 meters from the station.

Crew Dragon will then dock to the IDA-2 which is attached to PMA-2 on the forward port of the Harmony module. Space Shuttle Atlantis also docked to the same port on STS-135. The mission will only be the second time that an American spacecraft has autonomously docked to the ISS.

“Dragon is the most advanced spacecraft. It should be inspiring in look – just like the control system – which is a “modern feat of engineering” utilizing touchscreens,” said Benji Reed, Director of Crew Mission Management at SpaceX.

Once on the ISS, both Hurley and Behnken will give Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy some more help since he currently is the sole astronaut on the American segment.

Hurley and Behnken will be able to take the American flag that Hurley left himself in 2011 on STS-135.

The DM-2 crew will stay on the ISS for a minimum of 30 days and with a maximum stay of 119 days. The spacecraft’s stay on the ISS is limited due to the degradation of the solar cells on the solar panels which are on the trunk below the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Soyuz too has a limited on orbit life which is due to the degradation of the hydrogen peroxide thrusters.

After undocking, the spacecraft will remain on orbit for two days. Then the Crew Dragon will de-orbit and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off of Florida. Reed also said that the goal for SpaceX is that the crew will be extracted from the spacecraft in under an hour.

“As far as splashing down in the water, we do expect it to be a little softer than a Soyuz landing, but definitely harder than a Space Shuttle landing,” said Behnken.

The crew and the spacecraft will then board the SpaceX recovery craft Go Searcher. Another SpaceX ship, Go Navigator will also be in the recovery zone to assist.

The Crew-1 capsule in its current state. Photo Credit: NASA.

The next SpaceX Crew Dragon launch will be USCV-1 also known as Crew-1, the mission will be the first long-duration Crew Dragon mission. The Crew-1 capsule, C207 is currently in the cleanroom at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.

The crew will consist of NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

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