SpaceX Success Prepares US for Return to Manned Launches
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Space News
The United States’ manned space program will take another “small step for man” when the Dragon SpaceX capsule splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean early Friday morning.
The splashdown will mark the end of the first successful launch and docking of an unmanned commercial spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS).
Falcon 9 rocket-propelled Crew Dragon into space at 2:48 a.m. Saturday from Launch Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That’s the same launch pad used for NASA Apollo and shuttle missions.
Unmanned Spacecraft Built by SpaceX
Billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX designed and built the Crew Dragon spacecraft specifically for use by NASA astronauts.
NASA “has not been able to launch astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011, when its space shuttle fleet [was] retired after 30 years of service and 135 missions. Since then, NASA has been dependent on Russia to fly crews to the station on Soyuz spacecraft.” Space.com explained.
The Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule, which has been used since 2012 to send supplies to the astronauts living on the International Space Station, said The Verge, a multimedia website reporting on technology.
The spacecraft Crew Dragon carried 400 pounds of supplies for the crew on the ISS. A test dummy nicknamed Ripley was also on board, wired to numerous sensors to measure the forces exerted on a human body during the mission.
Capsule Docked with ISS Using Its Own Guidance and Propulsion Systems
The Crew Dragon capsule docked successfully with the ISS early Sunday morning. The docking was notable because it was SpaceX’s first attempt to dock with the station using its own guidance and propulsion systems, astronomy.com noted. Previously, the SpaceX cargo capsule had only flown close to the space station where it was grabbed by a robotic arm controlled by the ISS crew.
NASA May Certify SpaceX’s First Manned Flight This Summer
A successful docking of Crew Dragon was a prerequisite before NASA could certify SpaceX’s first manned flight, which could come as early as this summer.
“The mission, called Demo-1, is SpaceX’s big chance to show it can build a crewed spaceship, something Musk has dreamed about since he founded the company in 2002,” space.com reported.
“It’s been 17 years. We still haven’t launched anyone yet, but hopefully, we will later this year,” Musk said in a post-launch press conference. “So, that will definitely be the culmination of a long dream for a lot of people, me and other people at SpaceX, for sure. Can’t wait.”
As a result of the success of Demo-1, the Musk team has begun discussing the launch of Demo-2 later this year. It will be led by NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and crewmate Doug Hurley. The mission is scheduled to be the first privately owned spacecraft to bring humans to space.
Next Flight Might Also Be Unmanned Test of ‘In-Flight Abort’ System
However, there’s a chance that the Demo 2 will also be an unmanned mission. According to The Verge, the next launch might be a way to test the capsule’s “in-flight abort” scenario by simulating a problem the Falcon 9 could experience in flight. The success of the demo will determine if Crew Dragon can safely taxi astronauts to the ISS and back.
The capsule will remain docked to the ISS until Friday, March 8. It will then detach and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. “This will be an important test of Crew Dragon’s re-entry and parachute systems, which are different from its cargo runs,” astronomy.com added.