After being years behind schedule due to lack of funding from Congress in it’s first few years of development and later technical hurtles, SpaceX finally saw the launch of its first human-rated spacecraft dubbed Dragon 2, or Crew Dragon.
The launch took place on Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 2:49:03 a.m. EST from historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, located across the river from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch Pad 39A served as the pad for all of the manned Apollo moon missions and over 80 Space Shuttle missions, including the final Shuttle mission (STS-135/Atlantis) in July 2011.
The launch countdown, as well as the mission, provided valuable training on procedures that will be used during the next Crew Dragon mission that will include an actual crew which is called Demo-2. This mission (Demo-1) was unmanned and provided a critical shakedown of the upgraded model of the current Cargo Dragon capsule that is currently being used for payloads to be launched to the International Space Station.
The countdown and launch on March 2nd went very smoothly. The upgraded Falcon 9 lifted off on time at 2:49:03 a.m. EST and lit up the night sky as it arched northeast away from the launch site. The first stage successfully returned to Earth and landed on the barge ship in the Atlantic Ocean called “Of Course I Still Love You.” The upgraded Block 5 of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle sported the new upgraded Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs) inside the liquid oxygen tank. The COPVs have been a concern because they have been the cause of the two Falcon 9 failures. The first occurred on June 28, 2015 when a strut broke free during first stage flight (2 minutes 19 seconds) after launch, causing the rupture of the liquid oxygen tank and the breakup of the second stage, ending the CRS-7 mission in failure. The second happened on the launch pad during just before the engine test when it is believed that frozen liquid oxygen got caught in a buckle of the COPV and it created an ignition source that created an enormous conflagration and the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and caused extensive damage to the then only Florida launch pad (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Once in orbit, Dragon 2 was set to check off a mountain of test objectives before it was given the green light to dock with the International Space Station. As of this writing, it appears that on this first flight, the spacecraft passed with flying colors. It took Dragon 2 (and it’s passenger, a modified mannequin named “Ripley”, a nod to the “Alien” films, and a plush earth) 27-hours of free flight to check out systems before docking to the ISS on Sunday, March 3, 2019.
Ground controllers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and Mission Control in Houston, Texas and the crew aboard the International Space Station watched very closely as Dragon 2 performed the necessary tests as far as stopping it’s approach to the station at various times during approach and retreating as well. Dragon finally docked to the ISS ahead of schedule at 5:51 a.m. EST. With the docking, Dragon 2 became the first privately-owned human-rated spacecraft to dock to the orbital outpost. Docking was textbook and was very different from the current Dragon capsule. The current Dragon is berthed, or attached to the ISS by the robot arm called Canadarm2. Crew Dragon docks using its own computer without the help of the Station arm.
Later in the day on Sunday, the hatch was opened and the crew entered the capsule, wearing protective masks to protect from any unsafe particles in the air and collected air samples, and once deemed safe, the crew removed the masks and proceeded to check out the new spacecraft and removing cargo that was delivered to the ISS. The docked mission lasted 6 days and then departed for it’s trip back to Earth. The re-entry was a phase that Elon Musk was worried about because the shape of the Dragon 2 isn’t exactly like the classic capsule. Dragon 2 is in more of a gumdrop shape and was worried about how the heat shield would perform during the scorching heat of reentry.
NASA had deployed assets to monitor Dragon 2 during it’s re-entry and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Good coverage showed the capsule during peak heating. The four drogue parachutes opened at the right time and successfully before the four main parachutes deployed and inflated, slowing the spacecraft to a successful landing on Friday, March 8, 2019 at 8:45 a.m. EST. The landing provided training for the recovery crews that will be on hand to recover the two astronauts that will launch on the next Crew Dragon mission.
The capsule looked more like a roasted marshmallow once it was recovered from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, showing the harsh environment it endured during its decent from space. Once back at Cape Canaveral, it will be refurbished for an in-flight abort test that is currently scheduled for July. This test will be the final test before allowing humans onto the craft. That test will see an previously flown Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket with a dummy 2nd stage launch from Launch Pad 39A. Around 1 minute into the flight, the point of maximum aerodynamic stress on the vehicle, the Super Draco thrusters will fire, freeing the capsule from the Falcon 9 in an abort. This will test to see if Dragon 2 can successfully abort from an malfunctioning rocket during such high stress, that would save the crew. The Falcon 9 is not expected to survive the abort and is expected to either be destroyed due to the forces, or veer off course and it’s self-destruct device will destroy it, therefore there is no expected landing and recovery of the first stage.
As of this writing, the crewed flight is scheduled for August 2019. SpaceX is expected to be the first to send humans into space since July 2011. Boeing’s Starliner capsule is expected to have its uncrewed flight test in April 2019 launching atop ULA’s (United Launch Alliance) Atlas 5 rocket. That rocket will sport two solid rocket boosters to help boost the heavy capsule into orbit. Boeing’s crewed flight is also expected in August, but is expected to slip, as well as the SpaceX launch.
This year is expected to continue to be very exciting for us who follow spaceflight. Next month will also see the second flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy vehicle as it launches a massive communications satellite into orbit. Both first stages will return to the landing zones in Florida, and the core stage will hopefully make it’s first successful landing on the drone ship in the Atlantic. The maiden flight, which sent a Tesla into orbit just beyond Mars, did not land on the barge due to running out of the ignition fluid to fire it’s Merlin engines.
Images – Google Images