Technology & Science

SpaceX prepares for biggest test yet: The inaugural launch of its Crew Dragon capsule

It's been eight long years since astronauts launched from U.S. soil. Now, Elon Musk's SpaceX is readying for the test of a lifetime with the test launch of its new crew capsule.

Event marks first step in returning crewed launches to U.S. soil

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen after being raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Saturday launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

It's been eight long years since astronauts launched from U.S. soil. Now, Elon Musk's SpaceX is readying for the test of a lifetime with the test launch of its new crew capsule.

The test launch of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled for Saturday at 2:49 a.m. ET in Florida. If all goes well, the spacecraft — uncrewed but loaded with some experiments and supplies for the astronauts as well as a test dummy named Ripley after the protagonist in the Alien movies — will dock with the International Space Station (ISS).

 

It will be the first commercial crew mission to visit the ISS.

The launch called Demo-1 is designed to test avionics, docking, solar arrays, communications and environmental controls among other things. 

"There are a lot of things you can prepare for on the ground, and through analysis and tests — and we do all that on the ground — but there's nothing like flying a mission to be able to really check out all the key systems … to get ready for our next mission," Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA Commercial Crew Program, said last week during a news conference.

In this photograph, the Crew Dragon sits at the launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with the crew access arm in position. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has successfully launched and even reused its Dragon cargo capsule, but this will be the first flight for the Crew Dragon, and there are some differences from its predecessor.

When the Dragon cargo reaches the ISS, Canadarm 2 captures it and brings it to dock. Crew Dragon will be able to dock on its own.

The Crew Dragon also has SuperDraco thrusters, more powerful than the Draco thrusters used on the Dragon. They will have the ability to act as a launch escape system in case the crew needs to abort before or after launch.

In 2015, SpaceX conducted its pad abort test seen here. (SpaceX)

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry the capsule, will return to a drone ship off the coast of Florida.

The shiny white new capsule is about five metres tall and can carry as many as seven astronauts.

After launching, the capsule will orbit Earth for just over 24 hours before heading to the ISS where it is scheduled to dock at 6:05 a.m. on Sunday. It will then dock where the current astronauts on the station — including Canadian David Saint-Jacques — will unload the cargo.

NASA said that the astronauts, who are already preparing for the Crew Dragon's arrival, will be able to explore the new capsule after it's docked. It will then head back to Earth on March 8 where it will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred kilometres off the Florida coast.

I guarantee everything will not work exactly right and that's cool.- Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA Human Exploration and Operations

As it's the inaugural launch, NASA officials said they don't expect everything to go off without a hitch.

"I guarantee everything will not work exactly right and that's cool," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA Human Exploration and Operations. "That's exactly what we want to do. We want to maximize our learning so we can get this stuff ready so when we put crew on … it'll be the right safety for our crews."

See the interior of the Crew Dragon in the video below.

 

Boeing's Starliner capsule

The first crewed flight for SpaceX will take place some time in July.

Boeing, which is also providing crew transport for NASA, is scheduled to do its first uncrewed demo launch of its Starliner capsule in April. Its crew demo will take place in mid-2019.

The two companies will also have to do abort tests before their crewed missions.

Human spaceflight is basically the core mission of SpaceX. So we are really excited to do this. There is nothing more important for us than this endeavour.- Hans Koenigsmann, vice-president of SpaceX's build and flight reliability

Hans Koenigsmann, vice-president of SpaceX's build and flight reliability, said the company is happy to be playing a role in getting humans into space.

"Human spaceflight is basically the core mission of SpaceX," he said. "So we are really excited to do this. There is nothing more important for us than this endeavour."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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