- NASA has given SpaceX approval for the first launch of a new spaceship designed to fly astronauts, called Crew Dragon.
- The experimental launch, which will carry only a dummy and some cargo (not people), is scheduled to occur on March 2 at 2:48 a.m. ET.
- The mission is one of several that Elon Musk’s rocket company must do before NASA will certify the Crew Dragon for regular flight. NASA says it’s a “critical first step” to proving the system is safe.
- Boeing also plans to test-launch its spaceship, called the CST-100 Starliner, for NASA in the coming months. The two spacecraft are part of NASA’s $US8 billion Commercial Crew Program.
- If SpaceX’s test on Saturday succeeds, the company may launch its first astronauts as soon as July.
For the first time in nearly eight years, an American-made spaceship designed to fly astronauts is about to launch from American soil.
SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, was given approval by NASA on Friday for the inaugural launch of its new space capsule called Crew Dragon (shown above).
Crew Dragon is scheduled to lift off atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday at 2:48 a.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The vehicle will then catch up to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, dock with the $US150 billion laboratory, then return to Earth a few days later.
No astronauts will ride in SpaceX’s seven-passenger spaceship during its maiden flight. Only some cargo and a dummy – what NASA calls an “articulated total body model” or ATB – will fly into low-Earth orbit (about 250 miles above the ground).
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said on Friday that SpaceX’s first uncrewed launch is “an absolutely critical first step” toward “eventually returning crewed launch capability back here to the US.”
NASA and SpaceX are calling this uncrewed mission “Demo-1,” since it’s the first of a several planned Crew Dragon demonstration flights. The space agency wants to see each one succeed before it will approve the vehicle to regularly fly astronauts.
“The uncrewed test flights will be the first time commercially-built and operated American spacecraft designed for humans will dock to the space station,” NASA representative Anna Heiney wrote in a blog post on February 6. “The first flights are dress rehearsals for missions with astronauts aboard the vehicles.”
The US Air Force’s 45th Space Wing is monitoring weather conditions at the Cape, and suggests there’s a 20% chance of delay due to weather on Saturday. If SpaceX does not launch at the scheduled time, the USAF weather report suggests a backup launch date on the morning of March 5.
“Demo-1 is a flight test, it absolutely is, although we view it also as a real mission, a very critical mission,” Kirk Shireman, who manages the space station program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said during a press briefing about the upcoming launch. “The ISS still has three people on board, and so this vehicle coming up to the ISS for the first time has to work. It has to work.”
Why NASA is itching to launch American-made commercial spaceships
The experimental launch is part of a roughly $US8 billion effort called the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which has been in the works since 2010.
In addition to SpaceX, Boeing is the other company partnering with NASA to eventually fly astronauts. Boeing hopes to conduct the first orbital test launch of its CST-100 Starliner space capsule in April.
NASA’s goal with the program is to resume flying astronauts to and from the US – a capability the agency lost after retiring its space-shuttle fleet in July 2011. Since then, NASA hasn’t had a way to transport its own astronauts to the space station. The agency has instead exclusively relied on Russia to fly its astronauts on Soyuz spaceships.
NASA ended the space shuttle program at behest of lawmakers because, who had concerns about its safety and cost. According to estimates of the shuttle’s development cost, each launch cost roughly $US1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars. At the time, a new government launch system was also starting to be developed, and the commercial spaceflight industry was advancing quickly.
But NASA’s arrangement with Russia to fly astronauts on Soyuz spaceships has become increasingly problematic.
One issue is cost: Russia has nearly quadrupling its prices for NASA over the course of a decade. In 2008, one round-trip flight for a NASA astronaut cost about $US22 million, but bu 2018 that price to NASA had surged to about $US81 million.
Another problem is reliability and safety. A Soyuz rocket failed during its launch in 2018 – the crew walked away uninjured – and a mysterious hole was recently discovered in another Russian spacecraft docked at the ISS.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is NASA’s plan to seed reliable, cost-effective, US-based ways of transporting its astronauts to and from orbit. After a yearslong competition, and SpaceX and Boeing emerged as the frontrunners.
But before launching any astronauts, both companies have to prove their vehicles are safe with a series of test launches.
SpaceX demonstrated that it could reliably whisk a crew to safety in the event of a rocket failure in May 2016, when it performed a successful launchpad abort test. Boeing is preparing for a similar test with the Starliner in June 2019, according to NASA.
If all goes well with SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission, the company will also perform an in-flight abort test in June.
Crew Dragon may then ferry its first human crew to the space station in July 2019 – a mission called Demo-2. Boeing hopes to follow suit with its first crewed launch sometime around August 2019.
In 2015, NASA selected veteran astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams and three other “space pioneers” to climb inside and provide feedback on the Commercial Crew spaceships. Williams is now among the crew slated to fly Boeing’s second crewed flight of the Starliner.
“Five years ago, this would have been like, ‘No way, what are we doing asking commercial providers to be able to do this?'” Williams previously told Business Insider. “Now it feels like a natural progression for space travel.”
‘I guarantee everything will not work exactly right’
SpaceX plans to launch its first Crew Dragon from Launch Pad 39A at the Cape, where Apollo and space shuttle missions used to launch. The company has leased the historic site from NASA and retrofitted it, using it to launch Falcon 9 rockets and the first-ever Falcon Heavy rocket.
SpaceX received increased scrutiny from NASA following the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad in September 2016. (A satellite was lost in the blast, but one was hurt.) The agency requested more design tweaks and rocket flight data, and postponed a launch date for SpaceX’s first experimental Crew Dragon mission more than a dozen times.
Despite these repeated delays, the March 2 date for SpaceX’s Demo-1 flight is official. NASA, representatives from Musk’s compan, and key partners from the space station program held what’s called a flight readiness review meeting on Friday. Such reviews typically only happen just before launch attempts.
Gerstenmaier said on Friday that this thorough review of SpaceX’s rocket, spaceship, and launch plans found no issues that would prevent Musk’s company from launching.
However, the agency doesn’t expect a flawless inaugural flight of Crew Dragon.
“I fully expect we’re going to learn something on this flight – I guarantee everything will not work exactly right, and that’s cool, that’s exactly what we want to do,” Gerstenmaier said. “We want to maximise our learning so we can get this stuff ready, so when we put crew on, we’re ready to go do a real crew mission.”
Kathryn Lueders, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said on Friday that she visited SpaceX’s rocket and spaceship a few weeks ago. She was accompanied by astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who are scheduled to fly Crew Dragon for the first time in July.
“It really gave us a sense of getting ready and realising that the next vehicle that we’re going to be walking up to on the pad is going to be their crewed flight test,” Leuders said. “It really made me realise and further realise, and emphasise, how important this mission is for us to do and to learn from.”
After NASA announced Behnken and Hurley’s selection for the first crewed SpaceX flight during an event in August, Hurley said: “The first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot. You don’t ever think it’s going to happen to you, but it looks like it might.”
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on February 7, 2019.
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