NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says he is “fairly confident” that astronauts will be able to fly to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in late May or early June, pending the last parachute tests, data review and a training program that can escape major impacts. of the coronavirus pandemic.
An investigation into an engine failure on the latest launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – the same design that will launch the Crew Dragon astronauts – should also be completed in a short time, said Bridenstine.
“I think we’re really in good shape,” said Bridenstine in an interview on Thursday. “I’m pretty confident that we can launch at the end of May. If we slide, it will probably be in June. It won’t be much. “
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are training for the test flight of the Crew Dragon, which will be the first mission to launch astronauts into Earth orbit from American soil since the withdrawal of the space shuttle in July 2011. The astronauts will take off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and dock with the space station a day or two later.
Hurley and Behnken are expected to live and work aboard the space station for two or three months, then return to Earth for a splash in the Atlantic Ocean east of Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX and Boeing won multi-billion dollar NASA commercial crew contracts to develop human-rated spacecraft in 2014 after several years of development and preliminary testing. SpaceX is ahead of Boeing, and the crew capsule for the next test flight – designated Demo-2 – is currently at Cape Canaveral being processed and tested before launch.
NASA is paying SpaceX more than $ 3.1 billion for Crew Dragon’s development program, as well as six operational crew rotation flights to the space station after the Demo-2 mission.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner capsule will give NASA an American-built ship to transport crews to and from the station, ending the agency’s dependence on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz for crew transportation.
Hurley and Behnken continue to prepare for the Demo-2 mission despite the coronavirus pandemic, which is affecting other government and industrial sectors. Staff working on some NASA missions work remotely, but Bridenstine said the agency’s commercial crew program and the Mars Perseverance rover remain top priorities, and physical preparations continue for launches in the coming month.
While the Crew Dragon’s first piloted test flight is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in late May, the Perseverance rover is expected to take off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket during a planetary launch period starting on July 17.
At the end of last week, no staff working on NASA’s commercial crew program had tested positive for the coronavirus, said Bridenstine.
“First, people who currently work in commercial teams practice social distancing and (wear) personal protective equipment,” said Bridenstine. “We have moved and changed our teams so that fewer people are present in the room when you have to have several people in the same room. So we’ve done a lot of these things to make sure you’re as safe as possible while working on these missions.
“We also said that if people don’t feel safe, they don’t have to work on the mission,” he told Spaceflight Now in an interview. “I have been very clear with all agency heads that no one should feel pressured to do work if they do not feel safe. And as leaders, we need to make sure that if someone talks about not feeling safe, we need to give them another job to do, where they feel safe, and then make adjustments. “
NASA has made contingency plans if a commercial crew member is positive. In this case, the agency plans to use contact tracing to determine who was in the vicinity of the infected employee.
“If there is a positive case on a sales team, depending on where it is and how the person does the work, it may or may not have an impact on the mission,” said Bridenstine. “If someone is telecommuting, it might not have an impact on the mission. If he’s someone who has very rare contact with other people on a mission, then we may need to do some research.
“What we are trying to do is that we are trying to mitigate the fact that if there is a case, we can quickly identify the people this person was in contact with, trace it out and get all the people who were who were involved outside the mission and replaced them with other people.
“If there is an epidemic, yes, it will affect the date. But we are doing everything we can to minimize this possibility, ”said Bridenstine.
Other work remaining before the launch of Crew Dragon Demo-2 involves final testing of the capsule parachutes and technical reviews of the readiness of the ship’s abandonment system, said Bridenstine.
During the last SpaceX parachute test last month, the test rig was dropped from a helicopter prematurely after the craft became unstable at a test site in Nevada. NASA officials said the parachutes were not to blame for the botched test and the helicopter pilot decided to release the test bench for safety reasons.
“It has become unstable,” said Bridenstine. “The pilot abandoned the test item, which was actually just a weight simulator. None of this was salvageable, including the parachutes that were on board. So we have two more parachute tests, and now they’re going to be done from the C-130 (cargo plane) instead of a helicopter. We have obtained the agreement of the chief engineer and program manager, and the office of the astronauts, that these two remaining parachute tests are good for getting out of the C-130. “
The first of the two remaining skydiving tests was scheduled to take place over the Easter weekend. During this drop test, SpaceX intended to rig the ship to deploy only one of its two floating anchor parachutes, then deploy only three of the Dragon’s four main slides. The test would allow engineers to assess the performance of the parachute system in the event of a double failure.
“After that we will do another full test with two drug drops and four main falls,” said Bridenstine. “And once we finish these two tests, we will have confidence in the parachute system. I think we are pretty much confident in the parachute system right now. We just want to get more data. “
NASA is also evaluating test data on the modified launch system for the Crew Dragon, which is said to be activated to repel a failed rocket crew capsule, either on the launch pad or in flight.
A faulty valve inside the high-pressure propulsion system caused nitrogen tetroxide oxidant to leak into the system’s helium pressurization plumbing that was interrupted before a ground test of abandoned engines last April. When SpaceX tried to test the abandoned SuperDraco engines on a test bench at Cape Canaveral, the nitrogen tetroxide was pushed back into the titanium valve, causing an explosion that destroyed the spacecraft.
“We are replacing all of this titanium with another metal that will not be as combustible,” he said. “It took a bit of time, but we’re progressing very quickly at this point, and we’ve done all the testing at White Sands (New Mexico) on it. I am very confident that it will be fine. “
Design modifications to the abandonment system were successfully tested during a high altitude abandonment launch demonstration in January, when SpaceX activated SuperDraco engines on a Crew Dragon capsule more than a minute after launch on a Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA is also investigating a Merlin engine failure during the last SpaceX Falcon 9 launch last month. One of the nine Merlin engines on the first floor of the Falcon 9 stopped prematurely, but the rocket was able to overcome the engine problem and deliver the 60 payloads from the mission’s Starlink satellite to orbit.
“We explained the cause of this engine failure … and what I was told was that they understood very well what this failure was, and that will not affect the launch of our team commercial. Said Bridenstine.
The reusable Falcon 9 booster from the last launch flew for the fifth time. SpaceX launches the Demo-2 mission on a brand new Falcon 9 rocket.
Assuming the launch of Demo-2 remains on track for late May, NASA and SpaceX will hold a series of data reviews in the coming weeks, to culminate in a flight readiness review next month .
Once the Crew Dragon is connected to its Falcon 9 launcher, SpaceX will launch the rocket on pad 39A for a firing test of its main Merlin engines. Demo-2 ground crews and astronauts will also complete the final rehearsals and training before launch.
Hurley, the Crew Dragon’s vehicle commander, will attach himself to the left seat inside the spacecraft. Behnken, the pilot of the mission, will take place on the right during the launch.
The two-man crew will lead the Crew Dragon capsule on a trajectory northeast of Cape Canaveral over the Atlantic Ocean. After entering orbit approximately 10 minutes later, the Crew Dragon will perform a series of pre-planned demonstration maneuvers under the guidance of astronauts and ground controllers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
The Crew Dragon will approach the space station for automated docking in a day or two after launch, and Hurley and Behnken will open hatches to enter the station to join Commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner .
The arrival of the Crew Dragon will increase the station’s crew size from three to five for several months.
“Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will not only be demonstration pilots for Demo-2, but they will actually become crew members on the International Space Station for a period of several months to work, and they will continue to operate on the ISS, “said Bridenstine. “And then when we’re ready with the next Crew Dragon, they’ll go home.
“We are going to do a full evaluation of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon, so we will be on Earth for about a month with the Demo-2 Crew Dragon just to do inspections and assessments and make sure it is safe, then when we will make sure it worked as we expected, we will be ready to launch directly into crewed missions for normal operations. “
The Demo-2 mission was originally scheduled to last a few weeks, but NASA is extending the flight time to give the space station additional crew members.
The station is generally staffed with six people, and that will increase to seven once the SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft regularly fly to the research laboratory in orbit.
But commercial crew capsules are several years behind schedule, and NASA’s current contract with Roscosmos – the Russian space agency – to purchase Soyuz seats for American astronauts expires this year. This will leave the station with a crew of three until the arrival of the Crew Dragon.
Cassidy, which launched on April 9, is the last NASA astronaut with a confirmed route to and from the station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He is expected to return to Earth in October.
NASA is negotiating with Roscosmos for at least one additional Soyuz seat when the Russian crew next launches in October. Bridenstine said Thursday that these negotiations are continuing.
Bridenstine said the second Crew Dragon pilot mission – and the first operational crew rotation flight to use the SpaceX capsule – could be launched in August or September, assuming the Demo-2 mission takes off in late May or early June.
Meanwhile, the other NASA commercial contractor will not be able to launch astronauts until 2021.
Boeing said earlier this month that its Starliner crew capsule will launch on a second unmanned test flight later this year. The Starliner’s first space mission, called the Orbital Flight Test, encountered major problems after launch, preventing the ship from docking as expected.
The Crew Dragon successfully completed an unmanned flight to and from the space station in March 2019.
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