SpaceX Gets Approval from NASA to Test Astronaut Capsule in Saturday Launch

This undated photo made available by SpaceX on Feb 6, 2019 shows the Dragon crew capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket at the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Courtesy of SpaceX/TNS)
February 26, 2019

By Chabeli Herrera

ORLANDO, Fla. — The next step in NASA’s plan to return astronauts to space from the U.S. has the green light to proceed.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut capsule has been given the OK to perform its test flight early Saturday morning, following an all-day readiness review at Kennedy Space Center last Friday. The Falcon 9 rocket launch to the International Space Station is scheduled for 2:48 a.m. EST from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.

The spacecraft will dock with the ISS and stay there until March 8, when it will head back to Earth and splash into the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch, called Demo-1, will help NASA and SpaceX iron out any other issues with the capsule before it’s expected to launch astronauts this summer.

The decision to move ahead follows a report from the agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel that outlined several areas that were still a concern with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100Starliner, which has a test flight scheduled for April. Both capsules are expected to perform demo launches with astronauts aboard — July for SpaceX and August for Boeing.

They’ll be the first launches to the ISS using privately developed vehicles, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to return astronauts to space from American soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

In its report, the agency outlined several concerns for SpaceX. Chief among them was the company’s redesigned helium bottles, known as COPVs, which malfunctioned during a September 2016 launch and caused an explosion on the pad. Related to that, the panel is also looking at SpaceX’s “load and go” procedure, in which astronauts will board the spacecraft prior to fueling — a change from NASA’s previous policy involving human spacecraft.

The panel said that while NASA and SpaceX have made “significant progress” in understanding how the new bottles behave, issues still linger with the new version and how they may impact the “load and go” procedure.

“We believe that the team has yet to arrive at a clear definition of the risk posture or mitigation strategies related to operations with the redesigned COPV,” the panel wrote. “ … It is imperative that the Program understands the potential hazards, the controls of those hazards, and the margins involved, and also ensures that the operating environment stays within those margins if the redesigned COPV tanks are to be implemented for crewed flights.”

And, despite NASA’s decision to move forward with the test flight, at least one outstanding issue remained after last week’s review.

Officials with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, which is responsible for the current launches to the ISS, told NASA they were still worried about the software that will dock the capsule with the space station.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for NASA’s human spaceflight program, told reporters last week that he thought the issue would be resolved.

NASA also said in a statement that astronauts at the space station studied Crew Dragon’s docking procedures as part of the review last week.

“While the review was ongoing, crew members on station utilized a computer-based trainer and reviewed procedures to refresh themselves with the Crew Dragon spacecraft systems, rendezvous and docking, ingress operations, changes to emergency responses, and vehicle departure,” NASA said.

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©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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