It’s almost all-clear for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to fly to the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. On 19 Jan 2020, SpaceX and NASA successfully completed a flight test of the Crew Dragon Launch Escape System.
As the uncrewed DM-1 mission proved the Crew Dragon is capable of docking at and returning from the ISS, there are few remaining items on the checklist. SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk said that final delivery and inspection of the flight hardware can be expected in mid-February to early March. NASA and SpaceX will also collaborate on two further tests of the ‘Mark 3’ parachute system, using all four chutes. The largest question, which has the potential to delay the flight far into the spring, is that NASA will also now decide whether personnel levels on the ISS are a sufficient concern that the DM-2 mission should be extended from its previously planned 8-day visit, to a multi-month operational flight. If so, the astronauts will require additional training for further flight tasks, including spacewalks.
To reach this point, SpaceX has overcome a number of technical challenges, including changes to the Crew Dragon landing system, as previous ‘Mark 2’ parachutes had inconsistent results. SuperDraco’s fuel lines had to be redesigned after a catastrophic failure in April 2019, when a plumbing fault allowed nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer to explode on contact with a chemically incompatible valve.
At T+84 seconds, the nine engines of the rocket cut off, then the Crew Dragon capsule visibly separated from the Falcon 9 around T+86 seconds. Without a fairing on top, internal structure of Falcon 9 became directly exposed to supersonic airflow, overstressing the walls and propellant tanks, which were filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene, just like they would be in a real launch. By T+97 seconds, the veteran first stage and dummy second stage dissolved in midair, replaced by an orange-white fireball. As its remains fell from the sky, recovery ships were on standby, ready to pick up any debris for further analysis.
All this, however, was a dramatic sideshow for the main event – the Launch Escape System test. After separation, the Crew Dragon capsule successfully completed a burn of its eight SuperDraco engines, and had few problems dumping its ‘trunk’ service module on the way as it coasted to an apogee of 40 km. After reaching peak altitude, Crew Dragon kept itself upright, ready to deploy its two drogues, followed at lower altitude by its four ‘Mark 3’ main parachutes. Crew Dragon landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, and managed it all about half a minute ahead of schedule.
Capsule recovery was expected to take a couple hours, with SpaceX, NASA, and US Air Force participating. As Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were supervising recovery operations, astronauts Mike Hopkins and Vic Glover, who will fly on the second SpaceX Crew Dragon mission, were on hand to answer questions at the post-launch conference, alongside Jim Bridenstein and Kathy Lueders from NASA, and Elon Musk from SpaceX. Though the results will still need to be checked, it was mainly smiles and effusive thanks, after the “picture perfect” test.
Fallout is ongoing in the wake of the recent Tehran flight disaster. Among a very limited amount of positive development, officials have agreed to somewhat more cooperation between Canada and Iran during the investigation and recovery efforts.
In the meantime, Canadian officials have revised the official Canadian casualty count to 57, and Iran has admitted its military fired the surface-to-air missile that destroyed the plane. Though that solves one mystery, a great deal of work remains to be done.
Nashville to Fargo, Sioux Falls, Bozeman, and Peoria; Boston and Los Angeles to Grand Rapids; Chicago-Midway and Memphis to Des Moines; Austin to Des Moines and Grand Rapids; and St. Louis-MidAmerica to Savannah.
The seasonal flights start between mid-May and early June and will run through the summer.
The class, which included two Albertans – Jenni Sidey-Gibbons and Josh Kutryk, two Coloradans – Matthew Dominick and Jessica Watkins, and one Iowan – Raja Chari, swapped stories about their two years together as each of them took to the stage for their hard-earned silver astronaut pins.
Being an astronaut is still a rare opportunity – the 14 members of the 2017 class were selected from 18,300 applications. Even then, it’s not for everyone: Alaska’s Robb Kulin left training in 2018 (and is now at Firefly Aerospace).
Apart from regular stints on the International Space Station, many of the graduates will serve on the Artemis program. Its goal of a lunar 2024 is a mighty and perhaps even improbable proposition, but with the Moon literally centre stage at the event, the landing is clearly just a matter of time, not will.
A number of doctors, researchers, and graduate students are in the casualty list, including Edmonton OB-GYN Dr. Shekoufeh Choupannejad, University of Alberta electrical engineering professors Pedram Mousavi and Mojgan Daneshmand, University of Alberta computer science graduate students Pouneh Gorji and Arash Pourzarabi, Winnipeg immunologist Forough Khadem, and at least 9 other academics with ties elsewhere in Canada.
Aviation safety authorities may not be allowed to effectively cooperate on the investigation as a result of recent tensions between Iran and the United States. Just hours before, 2230 UT on 7 January, between 15 and 22 Iranian theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs) targeted two bases in Iraq used by the United States military. Due to the ambiguous safety situation, EASA and the FAA have asked passenger airlines to avoid flying over Iraq and Iran.