NASA gives go-ahead for SpaceX commercial crew test flight

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Updated 7:30 p.m. with comments from media briefing.

WASHINGTON — NASA managers have given their approval for SpaceX to proceed with an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on March 2.

At the conclusion of a day-long flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center Feb. 22, NASA announced that it approved plans for SpaceX to fly a mission designated Demo-1, featuring its Crew Dragon spacecraft but without astronauts on board, to the International Space Station. The review featured more than 100 people from NASA and SpaceX, examining the readiness of both the spacecraft and the station to support the mission.

“It’s exciting to have set the launch for March 2nd,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during a briefing late Feb. 22 at the Kennedy Space Center. “It’s great that we’re getting ready to go do this.”

The current schedule calls for a launch at 2:48 a.m. Eastern March 2, in an instantaneous launch window. The Falcon 9, lifting off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, will put the Crew Dragon into orbit. The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the ISS one day later and remain there until March 8, when it will undock and splash down several hours later in the Atlantic Ocean.

Prior to the review, NASA had telegraphed that the mission would likely stick to the March 2 date announced in early February. NASA issued a Feb. 20 press release with a detailed schedule of briefings and other events leading up to a March 2 launch.

Gerstenmaier said there was still one “action” to emerge from the review, regarding the performance of the flight software on the spacecraft as it approaches the ISS. He said one of the station’s international partners, later revealed to be Russia, had a dissenting opinion on the issue.

He said the concern was about what would happened if there was a failure of the main computers of the spacecraft on approach, and how it would perform a “breakout” maneuver to avoid the station. He said the computers on Crew Dragon are fault tolerant, but that the mission team will “look a little more rigorously” at fault detection procedures. “I don’t think it will be a problem once we go through the details of why it’s safe,” he said.

There are several other issues with this Crew Dragon spacecraft, said Gerstenmaier. “The vehicle is not fully qualified,” he said. “But we know the hardware is good enough to go do this demonstration flight. In fact, we want it to go to flight to see if there’s something else we missed, and we fully expect to learn some things on this flight.”

Among those issues, he said, is with the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters. Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said a thruster failed on an earlier Dragon cargo mission. “The SpaceX folks have done a tremendous amount of testing over the last four or five months,” she said, isolating to operations at very low temperatures. “We’re totally avoiding that condition on this mission by controlling the operational parameters of the mission.”

She added, though, that she had signed off on all the risks associated with the flight by mitigating them or concluding they were acceptable. “I feel like we’ve closed out all of our requirements with the space station program,” she said. “I will tell you that I’m ready to fly now.”

Should the launch be delayed for any reason, there are backup launch dates on March 5 and either March 8 or 9. One factor in the limited number of dates is a requirement for Dragon to be able to fly to the ISS in one day because of thermal constraints on the spacecraft, as well as doing a splashdown during daylight conditions. After that, NASA would stand down until after the March 14 launch of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new ISS crewmembers.

Demo-1 will be followed by a crewed test flight carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. That mission, Demo-2, is scheduled for no earlier than July, a schedule that will depend on what work will be needed to respond to issues discovered during the Demo-1 test.

An in-flight abort test of Crew Dragon spacecraft will take place between Demo-1 and Demo-2. That mission is scheduled for June, according to a NASA schedule released in early February, but SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said on Twitter Feb. 21 that the mission could take place in April, using the same Falcon 9 first stage that just launched the Nusantara Satu communications satellite and two secondary payloads.