On Friday, when NASA announced the nine astronauts who would fly aboard the first commercial crew missions, Kathy Lueders sat among the audience clapping. Certainly for the manager of the space agency’s commercial crew program, this was a happy day. But much hard work remains before the flights actually take place, and Lueders knows this more than anyone.
“We’ve got to keep going,” she said later Friday, in an interview following the astronaut announcement ceremony. “I kind of feel like we’re having the party before the the flight.”
Just before the ceremony, NASA released an updated test-flight schedule for the SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft. This schedule showed SpaceX a couple of months ahead of Boeing—at this point—in the race to become the first private company to ever launch humans into orbit and restore America’s capability to launch its own astronauts into space.
In talking to Lueders, we wanted to know what SpaceX had to do, from here on out, the cross the finish line.
First up for SpaceX is the uncrewed mission, Demo-1, presently targeted for November. SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, has expressed confidence in the company’s ability to make this deadline. However, she admitted last Friday that, “Predicting launch dates can make a liar out of anyone.”
After Friday’s ceremony, Shotwell met with leaders of NASA’s International Space Station program in Houston to pin down potential launch dates for the Demo-1 mission. Those dates must sync up with the station’s crowded on-orbit schedule of visiting vehicles and crew activities. “Gwynne knows when she wants to fly,” Lueders said. “But it’s like getting on the range, only it’s an on-orbit range.”
SpaceX is close to delivering all the flight hardware for the Demo-1 mission. Lueders said the Block V variant of the Falcon 9 rocket first stage, as well as its upper stage, will soon ship from SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California, to the company’s facilities in McGregor, Texas, for engine testing. Afterward, the rocket is scheduled to arrive at Florida’s Cape Canaveral in September. The company has also delivered the spacecraft to Florida, but they still need to finish the Dragon’s trunk for the mission and ship that. Once all of the components arrive in Florida, they must be integrated.
“Obviously, we would love it if hardware comes to the Cape, and it all goes day by day exactly how you’d like it, but when find problems you’ve got to fix them,” Lueders said. “At the same time we’re in the process of really going through the certification, and reviewing all of the data that says, yes, this vehicle can safely come to station and be able to dock.”
A final date for the initial test flight appears unlikely to be announced before late September or October, officials said. But flying the Demo-1 mission successfully this fall or early winter would keep SpaceX on track to fly its first crewed mission in 2019.
In-flight abort test
Lueders said NASA would like to limit the time between the Demo-1 and crewed Demo-2 mission to about six months, but that obviously is predicated on a successful first test flight. For SpaceX, recovering the capsule from the ocean in good condition is doubly important because the company intends to use this vehicle for its in-flight abort test.
During this exercise, the Dragon will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket and then perform an abort test. That’s when the spacecraft thrusters rapidly push it away from the rocket at the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure. This will help to ensure that astronauts on the rocket can survive an accident during ascent.
“I think SpaceX’s big risk right now is getting the Demo-1 vehicle back and turning it around for that in-flight abort test,” Lueders said. “They’ve done a lot of things to help them, like additional waterproofing and a bunch of other things to minimize refurbishment time. But they’ll have to see how the capsule comes back. I think that’s probably the biggest driver we have right now.”
Both the rocket and spacecraft for the Demo-2 test are in flow right now, Lueders said, and—barring major problems identified during the test flight or the in-flight abort test—these vehicles could be ready for the April 2019 crewed test flight present on NASA’s schedule.
NASA also has concerns about the Falcon 9 rocket, particularly the way the rocket is fueled prior to launch. On September 1, 2016, SpaceX lost a rocket as technicians were loading fuel for a static fire test. Later, they found the cause of failure was due to bottles that stored liquid rocket fuels at extremely high pressures. These bottles are called composite overwrap pressure vessels, or COPVs.
Since the accident SpaceX has worked to upgrade the COPVs, but the new ones have not yet flown and may not until the Demo-1 flight. Lueders said NASA wants to see seven successful flights of Falcon 9 rockets with the upgraded COPVs before the first crew mission. That should not be too difficult for SpaceX, which now has a cadence of roughly two launches per month, to demonstrate.
After the 2016 accident, NASA and its outside safety assessment panels also raised concerns about the fact that SpaceX intended to fuel its rocket with astronauts aboard, a process known as load-and-go. NASA has become a bit more comfortable with load-and-go, but agency engineers still want to make sure the Falcon 9 rocket goes through the precise crew fuel-loading cycle five times before the actual mission.
“We have an agreement with SpaceX that they are going to take our launch vehicle configuration and run it through the actual crew-loading timeline to demonstrate consistency,” Lueders said. “It’s for us to get confidence on the crew-loading sequence.”
This means that the static fire and launch of the Demo-1 mission will follow fuel-loading procedures for crew missions, as will the static fire and launch of the in-flight abort mission. The fifth test will come during the static fire test of the Demo-2 flight.
After all of this, SpaceX will get a green light from NASA to launch a crew of Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into space and send them to the International Space Station. The race with Boeing may not yet be won, but the finish line is in sight.