SpaceX and NASA will team up for the first official crew mission to the International Space Station in nine years after launching from the United States later this month. The mission, known as Crew-1, will take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 31. While the Crew-1 is not the first time astronauts have taken to the U.S. mainland since the space shuttle era, it will mark the start of the next series of launches under NASA’s commercial crew program, which aims to expand private sector participation in crew launches.
In that regard, NASA and SpaceX officials held a series of press conferences earlier this week. The briefing was intended to provide an update on the upcoming mission and the modifications made by both sides after SpaceX’s Dragon returned from the International Space Station after NASA’s Demo-2 mission. The mission flew astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station to evaluate the capsule spacecraft.
SpaceX emphasizes working with NASA on extensive simulations and tests to get the Manned Dragon spacecraft certified.
At a second round of press conferences on Tuesday, Mr. Benjamin Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, provided important details on how the company worked with NASA to ensure the Dragon crew mission went smoothly.
Mr. Hans-Jorg Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s Vice President of Construction and Flight Reliability, revealed in the first round of briefings that the company had experienced unforeseen thermal shield damage to the manned Dragon spacecraft upon its return to Demo-2 from the International Space Station. Mr. Koenigsmann maintained that the damage was a “non-security incident” and repeatedly stated that neither Hurley nor Behnken were in any danger throughout the mission’s return phase.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Reed emphasized that his company and NASA had worked extensively together to ensure that Crew Dragon was able to safely carry astronauts from the International Space Station. SpaceX has completed more than eight million hours of hardware-in-the-loop testing between hardware and software systems, including working with Dragon spacecraft and falcons and collaborative testing with NASA’s manned space missions.
The pre-launch simulation includes the flight control team’s implementation procedures according to the schedule it will follow in practice. These procedures include events such as docking and decoupling from the International Space Station and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time, the spacecraft crew operated simulations to reflect their experiences inside the vehicle after liftoff and separation from the first stage of the rocket booster.
Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program program manager, also provided important details about accidental thermal shield erosion and the agency’s corrective actions. Details of the problem with the manned Dragon spacecraft are that when the capsule is separated in orbit, the spacecraft protrudes some bolts before returning. This is the same design on Orion and other spacecraft, and the problem with Demo-2 is that some of the material between the insulation watts has been eroded, a problem that was not discovered until the aircraft was inspected after landing, but not in Demo-1.
So SpaceX chose to do it solidly with better materials, and these design changes were tested in a test facility called Arc Jet, which simulates the kind of environment that returns to Earth. All 5 different samples passed the test. SpaceX and NASA have jointly developed the Dragon spacecraft’s heat shield, and the agency sounds confident that these upgrades won’t cause future problems.