Falcon 9 launches Crew Dragon on key test flight

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Updated 5:30 a.m. Eastern with press conference details.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched the first Crew Dragon spacecraft March 2, starting a critical mission to test the spacecraft before it is ready to carry astronauts.

The Falcon 9 lifted off on the Demo-1 mission from Launch Complex 39A at 2:49 a.m. Eastern after a problem-free countdown. The Crew Dragon spacecraft separated from the rocket’s upper stage 11 minutes after liftoff.

The spacecraft is en route to the International Space Station, with a docking expected about 27 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft will remain docked at the station until early March 8, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast several hours after undocking.

At a post-launch press conference here, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk confirmed that the spacceraft was working as expected in orbit. That included opening the nose cone of the spacecraft to expose its docking port and firing several of its Draco thrusters. “So far everything looks good,” he said.

NASA concurred. “The flight’s going great so far,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew deputy program manager.

The Crew Dragon is not carrying astronauts, but does have on board an instrumented mannequin named “Ripley” wearing a SpaceX pressure suit. Elon Musk tweeted late March 1 that there was also a “super high tech zero-g indicator” onboard: a plush toy resembling the Earth, sitting on one of the seats inside the capsule.

Demo-1 is the first of two test flights of Crew Dragon as part of SpaceX’s commercial crew contract with NASA. The flight is intended to test key subsystems on the spacecraft and identify problems that will need to be corrected before NASA approves flying its astronauts on the spacecraft.

Those milestones include testing Crew Dragon as it approaches and docks with the station and, later, its reentry and splashdown. This mission will mark the first time a Dragon spacecraft has docked with the station, as previous cargo Dragon spacecraft were berthed by the station’s robotic arm.

Musk said the biggest risk may be reentry, given the asymmetric shape of the capsule’s backshell, unlike the cargo Dragon. “That could potentially cause a roll instability on reentry,” Musk said, but added it felt it was unlikely given the simulations. “I would say hypersonic reentry is probably the biggest concern.”

Planning for Demo-2

The second test flight, Demo-2, will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. That mission is scheduled for no earlier than July, although agency leaders emphasized before the Demo-1 launch that they will not rush the launch of Demo-2 to meet a certain schedule.

Crew Dragon Falcon 9 liftoff
The Falcon 9 Demo-1 launch seen from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

“This test flight is going to be huge in giving us confidence” that the spacecraft is ready to carry people, said Mark Geyer, director of the Johnson Space Center, during a meeting with reporters here March 1. “What we don’t want is the teams to feel pressured that we have got to fly these things when we may not be ready.”

That’s one reason, he said, that NASA is moving ahead with a proposal to buy two Soyuz seats from the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos to ensure a U.S. presence on the station well into 2020. NASA stated its intent to buy those seats from Roscosmos in a Feb. 13 procurement filing.

“We have great confidence in our Russian partners. They have capacity,” he said. “Buying these extra couple of seats allows us to make sure that we’re going to have Americans on board the space station and not have pressure to get up there when we’re not ready.”

Geyer praised NASA and SpaceX for the progress they have made on Crew Dragon, while acknowledging that there is more work ahead. “I think it’s really incredible how far this team has come in the timeframe they’ve got,” he said. “We’re going to launch when we’re ready, and it could be a bit.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Elon Musk address reporters at a DM-1 news conference at KSC. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Elon Musk address reporters at a DM-1 news conference at KSC. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews

Both Geyer and Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said they were still confident that either Boeing or SpaceX, or both, would be ready to fly crews before the end of this year, when NASA’s access to Soyuz seats other than the two it seeks to purchase runs out.

“There’s a lot that we have to do before we can certify both these vehicles to fly humans to space, but I think it’s a definite possibility, and I’m confident we’ll get one of them up there with crew before the end of the year,” said Cabana, adding he felt there was a “better than 50 percent chance” of doing so.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is even more optimistic. “I’m very confident,” he said when asked at a briefing with reporters here late March 1 how confident he was that commercial crew vehicles would fly astronauts. “In fact, you can write in your article I’m 100 percent confident.”

“Unless something goes wrong” on Demo-1, Musk said, “I think that we will be flying, hopefully, this year. I mean this summer, hopefully.”

Behnken and Hurley were here for the launch and came away pleased. “Seeing a success like this definitely gives us a lot of confidence in the future,” Behnken said.