For the first time in nearly a decade, American astronauts will launch into space from US soil tomorrow aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, marking the first commercial crew flight for NASA.
Part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, NASA and SpaceX officially gave the mission to launch two NASA astronauts to the International Space a “go” following the passing of its final major review yesterday at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
If all goes according to plan, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, will liftoff at 4.33pm EDT from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A tomorrow.
As the final flight test for SpaceX, this mission will validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities.
This also will be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit.
“We’re burning down the final paper. All the teams are a go, and we’re continuing to progress toward our mission,” said Kathy Lueders, Manager of the NASA Commercial Crew Program.
The US Air Force 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60% change of unfavourable weather conditions for the Demo-2 mission, citing the primary weather concerns that could prevent launch are flight through precipitation, thick and cumulus clouds.
But 45th Weather Squadron Launch Weather officer Mike McAleenan said things are looking up.
“It certainly has been trending better over the last day or two for launch weather,” McAleenan said yesterday. “If I was to issue the forecast today, right now, we would probably be down to 40% chance of violation.”
Currently in quarantine – a routine part of prelaunch preparations for astronauts journeying into space, crew members Behnken and Hurley took part in a full dress rehearsal of launch day on Saturday, including suiting up and climbing aboard the Crew Dragon at Launch Complex 39A.
Lifting off from Launch Pad 39A atop a specially instrumented Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon will accelerate its two passengers to approximately 17,000 mph and put it on an intercept course with the International Space Station.
Once in orbit, the crew and SpaceX mission control will verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, the displays and control system and the manoeuvring thrusters, among other things.
In about 24 hours, Crew Dragon will be in position to rendezvous and dock with the space station.
The spacecraft is designed to do this autonomously but astronauts aboard the spacecraft and the station will be diligently monitoring approach and docking and can take control of the spacecraft if necessary.
After successfully docking, Behnken and Hurley will be welcomed aboard station and will become members of the Expedition 63 crew. They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew.
Although the Crew Dragon being used for this flight test can stay in orbit about 110 days, the specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch.
The operational Crew Dragon spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days as a NASA requirement.
Upon conclusion of the mission, Crew Dragon will autonomously undock with the two astronauts on board, depart the space station and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Upon splashdown just off Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the crew will be picked up at sea by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel and return to Cape Canaveral.
The Demo-2 mission will be the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station.
This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon will enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place onboard the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars starting with the agency’s Artemis program, which will land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface in 2024.