SpaceX plans to rocket a sleek new spaceship for NASA astronauts into orbit on Saturday. Here's what Crew Dragon must do to prove it's safe to fly people.

SpaceXAn illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space capsule for NASA astronauts launching toward space on a Falcon 9 rocket.
  • SpaceX plans to launch a new spaceship for NASA astronauts, called Crew Dragon, early Saturday morning at 2:49 a.m. ET.
  • The experimental launch won’t carry any people, just cargo and a dummy named Ripley. However, NASA says it’s “a very critical mission” to proving the vehicle is safe to fly.
  • Crew Dragon will rocket toward the International Space Station, arrive at the orbiting laboratory early Sunday morning, then depart and land in the Atlantic Ocean a few days later.
  • If this dress rehearsal for NASA’s $US8 billion Commercial Crew Program goes well, Elon Musk’s rocket company may fly its first astronauts as soon as July.
  • Here’s what to expect and when from the demonstration mission, which is called SpaceX Demo-1.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – SpaceX is about to launch one of the most critical space missions in the company’s 17-year history.

After years of delays, NASA and its partners have given SpaceX a “go” to launch its new spaceship for astronauts, called Crew Dragon (or Dragon 2), for the first time ever.

Elon Musk’s rocket company seeks to show that it can safely fly astronauts in its commercial spaceships. NASA, for its part, describes the mission as a “critical step” in resurrecting the ability to launch astronauts from US soil in American spaceships.

Crew Dragon is scheduled to launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday at 2:49 a.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. No people will fly inside the spaceship for this first demonstration – just cargo and sensor-laden dummy.

“Her name is Ripley,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president for build and flight reliability, revealed on Thursday. The dummy’s name is an homage to Ellen Ripley, the lead character in the film “Alien” played by Sigourney Weaver.

The mission is called SpaceX Demo-1 in formal circles, and if all goes well, the spaceship will travel to the International Space Station, dock with the $US150 billion laboratory, then return to Earth a few days later.

Read more: SpaceX will launch its Crew Dragon spaceship into orbit for the first time ever on Saturday. Here’s how to watch live.

“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.”

Here’s what to expect and when from the first experimental, orbital-class flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space capsule.

SpaceX has been working for years with NASA toward the first launch of Crew Dragon.

Following series of thorough tests — including blasts of sound to simulate the vibration of launch, and exposure in a vacuum chamber — Crew Dragon was shipped to Florida late last year.

There it was then integrated, or attached, to SpaceX’s partly reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship atop a Falcon 9 rocket is wheeled into a hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The spacecraft will be flown into orbit by the latest and arguably safest version of the Falcon 9, a model called “Block 5.”

Elon Musk/SpaceX via InstagramSpaceX’s first Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket rolls out to a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX has wheeled the entire launch system out to a site called Launch Complex 39A.

SpaceXThe Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX will use to launch its Crew Dragon spaceship into orbit is wheeled into a hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

No astronauts will fly in this demo — the spaceship is designed to be autonomous. But Crew Dragon will hold a spacesuit-clad dummy, or articulated mannequin, called Ripley. The plan is for a crew to fly the vehicle in the coming months.

SpaceXThe spacesuit and Crew Dragon spaceship that SpaceX will use to launch NASA astronauts into space.

The test flight is part of a larger effort called the Commercial Crew Program, or CCP, which aims to find a way to fly NASA astronauts to and from the space station. NASA lost that capability in July 2011, after it retired its space shuttle system. Astronauts currently fly in Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Dave MosherSpace shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

In 2014, after developing and launching uncrewed cargo spaceships for NASA, SpaceX was awarded a $US2.6 billion contract to develop and certify its Crew Dragon space capsule, then launch at least two (but up to six) operational missions to the space station.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship undergoes testing for electromagnetic interference in a special chamber.

Musk’s company has worked closely with NASA astronauts to refine the controls and functionality of Crew Dragon before it was finalised.

SpaceXNASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita Williams tests mock-ups of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and spacesuit in April 2018.

Boeing also won a $US4.2 billion CCP contract for its CST-100 Starliner spaceship. After each company performs an uncrewed mission to the space station, and a series of abort tests, NASA will let eight of its astronauts and one retired astronaut (now a Boeing employee) fly them into space.

SpaceX is launching its vehicle first. The Demo-1 mission is scheduled to launch at 2:49 a.m. ET on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, though there’s a 20% chance of a weather delay.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship has a trunk covered into solar cells.

On the launch pad, SpaceX briefly test-fired the Falcon 9 rocket’s engines to ensure the system was working correctly.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship sits atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Block 5 version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was redesigned to improve the reuse of its expensive 16-story booster. The improvement also aimed to correct a problem that arose with a previous version of the rocket, which exploded during a launch pad fuelling test on September 1, 2016.

The Crew Dragon will be loaded up with about 400 pounds of cargo, including Ripley, the dummy crewmember.

SpaceX/TwitterA view of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Ripley will be packed with sensors to gather data for SpaceX and NASA. That will help determine if Crew Dragon’s automated life support systems function as designed.

SpaceXSpaceX’s environmental control and life support system, or ECLSS, inside the company’s Crew Dragon space capsule.

The last dummy SpaceX flew into space was a mannequin in a spacesuit called “Starman,” which the company launched in a Tesla Roadster out to Mars orbit.

SpaceX/Flickr via YouTube (public domain)SpaceX’s spacesuit-clad ‘Starman’ dummy sits in the driver’s seat of a Tesla Roadster while orbiting Earth after launching aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6, 2018.

If the weather cooperates and there are no glitches, the rocket should lift off promptly at 2:49 a.m. ET under the cover of darkness.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Nusantara Satu mission rockets toward space carrying a communications satellite, moon lander, and small military satellite.

In just over 1 minute, the rocket will accelerate faster than the speed of sound.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)SpaceX’s CRS-14 mission launches cargo toward the International Space Station on April 2, 2018.

About 80 seconds into the launch, Crew Dragon and its rocket will enter a phase called “maximum dynamic pressure” or “Max Q.” That’s when there is the most stress on the rocket due to its high speed and the relative thickness of Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket screams toward space carrying the Es’hail 2 mission, forming condensation clouds at the launcher’s nosecone or fairing.

Approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds into flight, the Falcon 9’s booster or first stage — the biggest section of the rocket — will separate from the upper stage, which will continue flying Crew Dragon to space.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The booster or first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX rockets toward landing on a ship at sea on March 30, 2017.

The booster will then turn around, re-light its rocket engines, and slow down. This will cause it to fall back to Earth. A little more than 8 minutes after launch, it will try to land on a robotic ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)A Falcon 9 rocket booster built by SpaceX lands on an autonomous ocean barge after helping launch the SSO-A mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 3, 2018.

Landing the booster is not critical to the mission, but if all goes smoothly, it will get towed back to land for use in a future launch, saving SpaceX millions of dollars in rocket hardware.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The successful January 14, 2017, landing of a Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Around the same time as the booster landing, the upper stage will help send the Crew Dragon into orbit, then detach from the spaceship.

Kennedy Space Center/SpaceX via FlickrAn illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2 or Dragon V2, orbiting Earth. (The first Dragon was a cargo and supply ship not designed to carry people.)

On Sunday morning, Crew Dragon will catch up to the football-field-size International Space Station.

NASAThe International Space Station (ISS).

In SpaceX’s previous launches of its uncrewed Cargo Dragon (or Dragon V1), the spaceships have been captured by a robotic arm on the space station.

But this time, Crew Dragon has to prove it can safely dock with the roughly $US150 billion orbiting laboratory.

SpaceXAn illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship docking with the International Space Station.

A crew of three crew members is already aboard the space station: NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. They will welcome the cargo and dummy if all goes according to plan.

NASAThe Expedition 58 crew of the International Space Station.

Around 2 a.m. ET on March 8, Crew Dragon will depart from the ISS, carrying Ripley and what NASA says are “critical research samples” loaded up by the space station crew.

NASASpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft pulls up to the International Space Station with 2.75 tons of cargo on February 23, 2017.

Then Crew Dragon will scream through Earth’s atmosphere at dozens of times the speed of sound, then slow down using its ablative heat shield. Finally, it will deploy four landing parachutes.

If that all happens according to plan, the space capsule will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral around 7:30 a.m ET on March 8.

NASA Langley Research Center/Ron BeardUSAF personnel train to rescue astronauts from SpaceX’s Crew Drago spaceship.

A boat will then recover the spaceship, its cargo, and the dummy passenger, and return them to land for SpaceX and NASA to scrutinize.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Cargo Dragon or Dragon V1 spaceships, which launched on the CRS-5 mission to the space station, being recovered on a boat after splashing down in the ocean.

If the Demo-1 mission is successful, SpaceX will then have one more uncrewed flight-abort test to complete before turning its attention to flying astronauts.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule during a launch pad abort test in Florida on May 6, 2016.

As soon as July of this year, SpaceX may launch Demo-2: The company’s first-ever crewed mission.

NASANASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) sit inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship.

“Human space flight is basically the core mission of SpaceX,” Koenigsmann said on February 22. “There is nothing more important for us than this endeavour.”

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