Officials from NASA and SpaceX spoke at a series of briefings on Friday to preview the upcoming flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the discussions was, after nine years since the space shuttle’s retirement, how very close astronauts really are to launching from Florida again into orbit. So far, everything remains on track for a May 27 launch to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket.
As the briefings were taking place, in fact, SpaceX conducted its 27th and final test of Crew Dragon’s Mark 3 parachute system. This successful test essentially closes out the last major technical hurdle standing between the spacecraft and launch.
The biggest pre-launch concern that emerged on Friday seems to be weather. The Crew Dragon spacecraft has a few launch constraints a satellite does not, and mission managers also need to watch downrange weather because of potential abort scenarios. (Dragon can return to Earth at almost any point, and it would be good to have relatively calm seas for an emergency ocean landing). Finally, there is the fact that storm systems often kick up during the afternoon in Florida in late spring and summer. The launch is scheduled for 4:32pm ET (20:32 UTC).
“There is a very high chance of scrub due to weather, given the time of year,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX. A back-up launch opportunity is available on May 30.
Whenever it happens, Crew Dragon’s flight will make history. Only eight new spacecraft carrying humans into orbit have ever launched—US Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle vehicles; Russian Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz vehicles; and the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft. This is the first time one has been built and launched by a private company.
Over the next four weeks NASA and SpaceX engineers and managers will seek to finalize their paperwork and reviews to ensure a safe flight of Crew Dragon. This work will culminate with an agency-level Flight Readiness Review meeting, presently scheduled for May 20. After this, the spacecraft and rocket will enter final preparations for the mission. Following launch, it will take about 19 hours for Dragon to catch up to, and dock with, the space station.
The astronauts for this mission, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, have already been limiting their contact with other people, and they will formally enter quarantine facilities at Johnson Space Center on May 16. About six days before launch, they will fly on a NASA aircraft to Kennedy Space Center, where they will remain in quarantine before the launch.
All of this is fairly standard fare for a US launch, as a lot of these protective procedures occurred during the space shuttle program. What will be difficult for the crew, however, is not being able to share the day of launch with the wider public. NASA has encouraged people to stay home and not congregate for the launch. Large numbers of friends and family members typically attend the launch, and those activities, too, will be curtailed.
“Boy, I wish we could make this into something really spectacular,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “But having large crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at the Kennedy Space Center, now is not the time for that. We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center. It makes me sad to even say it.”
Listing image by NASA