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Crew Dragon astronauts ready for re-entry, splashdown


Crew Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

With Hurricane Isaias threatening Florida’s East Coast, astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken are awaiting a go-ahead on plans to undock from the International Space Station Saturday, setting up a fiery plunge to splashdown Sunday, presumably in the Gulf of Mexico, to close out a 64-day flight.

Given the track of the hurricane, a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean at one of three approved sites off Florida’s east coast is effectively ruled out, focusing landing plans on the Gulf where four sites are available off Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa.

Assuming NASA and SpaceX press ahead, a final decision on prime and backup landing sites is not expected until Saturday, based on the latest forecasts and assessments of the Crew Dragon’s health. The preferred splashdown zone is just south of Panama City.

“We look forward to the weather forecasts that are coming out daily at this point, and they’ll even get more frequent as we get closer to the actual splashdown,” Behnken told reporters in an orbital news conference Friday.

“We have confidence that the teams on the ground are, of course, watching that much more closely than we are, and we won’t leave the space station without some good splashdown weather in front of us.”

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is certified for around 114 days in space and if the weather or some other problem crops up that might rule out undocking for a Sunday landing, “we know we can stay up here longer,” Behnken said. “There’s more chow, and I know the space station program’s got more work that we can do for the folks that have sent science up here to the space station.”

Said Hurley: “We have some of the best people in the business working on this for us and if the weather is not good, we won’t try to leave tomorrow, we’ll leave on a different day when it is.”

But assuming the weather cooperates and no technical issues crop up, Behnken and Hurley would undock from the station’s forward port around 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, spend the night aboard the Crew Dragon and then fire their braking rockets around 1:50 p.m. EDT Sunday for a splashdown in the Gulf around 2:42 p.m. EDT.

This map shows the Crew Dragon’s seven landing zones. Credit: NASA

A SpaceX recovery ship, staffed by engineers, medical personnel and fast-response support crews with jet skis and other gear, will be stationed nearby to recover the capsule, pull it on board, help the crew get out and render any medical assistance that might be necessary.

It will be NASA’s first ocean splashdown in 45 years and the first piloted re-entry of a Crew Dragon capsule. But Hurley and Behnken, both space shuttle veterans and former test pilots, said Friday they are confident the SpaceX capsule will bring them safely back to Earth.

That said, bobbing about in the sea awaiting recovery while re-adjusting to gravity after an extended stay in weightlessness raises the prospect of post-splashdown nausea and seasickness.

“One effect of (a long-duration stay in) space … is you’re very conditioned to microgravity, and you’re not so conditioned to gravity,” Hurley told James Corden, host of the CBS Late Late Show, in an earlier interview. “And then your vestibular system, your inner ears, play tricks with you.

“As you can imagine, even if you decided to go deep sea fishing one day, and you’ve lived on Earth your whole life, people get seasick. We’re going to do it from space and end up in the water. So there’s a pretty good likelihood that we may see breakfast twice on that particular day.”

Just in case, Hurley said Friday, “there are bags if (we) need them and we’ll have those handy, we’ll probably have some towels handy as well.”

“The ground teams are fully aware of the challenges of the water landing and what it does to the human body,” Hurley said. “We’ve got the the flight surgeons on board that will be able to help us as well. So all those things are in place and other than that, it’s just time to go give it a give it a try and and see how it goes.

The Crew Dragon was designed and built by SpaceX under contracts with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz ferry ships for transportation to and from the space station.

A successful unpiloted test flight was carried out last year, helping clear the way for Hurley and Behnken to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket May 30, the first orbital launch of astronauts aboard an American spacecraft from U.S. soil since the shuttle program’s final flight.

NASA managers say the Crew Dragon has chalked up a near flawless flight, setting the stage for re-entry and splashdown.

“We’re really excited to see our families,” Behnken said. “My son is six years old, and I can tell from the videos that I get, talking to him on the phone, that he’s changed a lot, even in the couple of months that we’ve been up here. And so that’s the thing I’m most looking forward to, seeing my family, my wife and my son.”

Hurley and Behnken are both married to astronauts. Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is retired from the astronaut corps, but Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is in training for launch to the space station aboard her husband’s Crew Dragon next year.

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SpaceX Starship static fire success sets rocket up for hop debut

At long last, SpaceX’s fifth Starship prototype has successfully ignited its lone Raptor engine in a test known as a static fire, paving the way for the first flight of a full-scale Starship as early as this weekend.

After almost three weeks of delays and several aborted attempts, SpaceX managed to fix a variety of relatively minor hardware bugs described by CEO Elon Musk on July 28th. The first static fire attempt was originally scheduled as early as July 10th and wound up gradually slipping a few days at a time to July 25th. Thus began another series of delays after static fire attempts – with varying progress from each – were aborted on July 25th, 27th (x2), and the morning of the 30th.

Thankfully, though those aborts and scrubs and delays have finally come to an end – at least for the moment. If things go according to plan over the next several days and teams are able to rectify a critical issue discovered earlier this week, Starship SN5 could become the first full-scale of its kind to lift off (intentionally) just a few days from now.

Elon Musk released this unique photo of Starship SN5’s first static fire – apparently taken by drone – shortly after the test wrapped up. (SpaceX/Elon Musk)

Prior to Starship SN5’s successful July 30th static fire, Musk revealed in a tweet that the rocket’s second attempt was aborted on July 27th after Hurricane Hanna damaged a connector, presumably related to telemetry and control. SpaceX fixed the issue and managed to stretch its test window by a few hours, allowing for a second attempt later that night.

Unfortunately, Starship’s static fire was scrubbed again by what Musk later described as a crucial fuel valve that failed to open, as well as “some odd [behavior]” observed in a pump related to the Raptor engine’s steering hardware. To complete the static fire as SpaceX later would two days later, the finicky “fuel spin pump” would have to have been fully fixed, but Raptor’s thrust vector control (TVC) pump issues could have plausibly been put off.

Given that SpaceX spent approximately 2.5 days inspecting and repairing Starship after the third static fire abort, it’s likely that they had time to fix whatever bugs were plaguing Raptor’s TVC hydraulic system. Regardless, Raptor’s TVC will need to be operating flawlessly before SpaceX goes ahead with the first full-scale Starship flight test. The 150m (~500 ft) hop will be the first time a Starship prototype roughly the same size – and built out of the same materials – as an orbital-class ship will attempt controlled flight.

Prior to July 30th’s static fire, SpaceX had already filed a few temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) – used to warn aviators of keep-out zones – with the FAA for hop test attempts on August 2nd and 3rd. SpaceX will likely need 12-24 hours to analyze the data, inspect Starship, and determine a timeline for the first hop attempt, but there is at least a slight chance that the company will push for Starship SN5 to fly as early as this Sunday. Stay tuned as things play out and the hop test gets a more concrete date.

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Weather could postpone Crew Dragon return

Crew Dragon parachutes

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX are ready to wrap up a test flight of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, but poor weather could delay the return of the spacecraft and its two-person crew.

A July 29 “return flight readiness review” by NASA approved plans to wrap up the Demo-2 test flight and bring NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley back to Earth, a little more than two months after their launch to the International Space Station.

The earliest possible undocking of the Crew Dragon is about 7:35 p.m. Eastern Aug. 1, which would set up a splashdown off the Florida coast at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Aug. 2, said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, at a briefing after the review.

That schedule assumes that weather conditions will be favorable for a landing. However, Tropical Storm Isaias is projected to reach Florida Aug. 2. While not forecast to become a hurricane, its winds and rain could postpone a landing.

Even without a threatening tropical storm, NASA said they will have to closely watch weather conditions given the stringent limits for this test flight. “The one that may be the most challenging is wind,” Stich said, with a limit of about 16 kilometers per hour. “This is to protect how the vehicle actually lands in the water and how the water will come up and surround the vehicle at touchdown.”

There are also limits on sea state, including wave height and period, as well as rain. Stich said the goal is to have acceptable weather conditions forecast for at least two of the seven splashdown locations before proceeding with the undocking. Once Crew Dragon undocks, it has enough supplies to remain in orbit for three days.

If weather postpones the first landing opportunity, Stich said the next opportunity to undock would be Aug. 3. “We’ll take it day by day,” he said. “We’ll evaluate the weather each day and see how the weather unfolds.”

The undocking and splashdown will wrap up a mission that both NASA and SpaceX said they’ve been pleased with to date. The Crew Dragon launched on a Falcon 9 May 30 and docked with the ISS the next day. While at the station, engineers have been monitoring its performance and performing various tests, including one where four station crew members boarded the capsule to see how it performs with a full crew complement.

“The systems on Dragon are doing very well. The spacecraft is very healthy,” Stich said. That included an inspection of the spacecraft last weekend by the station’s robotic arm, which saw no evidence of any damage or other issues that would pose a problem for the upcoming return.

Once the spacecraft returns, NASA and SpaceX will inspect the spacecraft and review data as part of a process that will culminate with a formal NASA certification of the spacecraft for operational flights. “Going through that process, leading to certification, takes about six weeks,” Stich said.

That certification will allow that first operational mission, Crew-1, to proceed with a launch scheduled for late September. The Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly that mission is nearing completion at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, factory and will ship to Florida in early August, said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX.

The Demo-2 capsule will be refurbished for use on the Crew-2 mission, which will launch in the spring of 2021. NASA announced July 28 the crew for that mission, which includes NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur along with Akihiko Hoshide of the Japanese space agency JAXA and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.

Reed said that refurbishing the Crew Dragon should be a “very fast process” that can be done at a Florida facility, with the capsule ready for its next mission within a couple of months. Each Crew Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights.

SpaceX won approval from NASA in May to start reusing both the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on commercial crew missions, starting with Crew-2. The company originally proposed flying a new spacecraft on each NASA mission.

“We’ve continued over the last number of years proving the awesomeness of reuse and reflight, and the importance of it,” Reed said of the decision to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft, noting its advantages not just in economics but also safety and reliability. “We were always ready to do it, and it was always part of the plan.”


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SpaceX spaceship almost ready for next NASA astronaut launch

A senior SpaceX director has shared a photo of the next Crew Dragon spacecraft assigned to launch NASA astronauts and confirmed that the vehicle is almost ready to ship to Florida.

Deep inside SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California rocket factory, the Crew Dragon capsule – believed to be C207 – assigned to the company’s operational astronaut launch debut (Crew-1) is in the late stages of final integration. A photo provided alongside the news confirms that the Crew Dragon is nearly complete. Aside from the installation of body panels and several other tasks that will be completed once the ship arrives in Florida, capsule C207 is already fully outfitted with a heatshield, windows, Draco maneuvering thrusters, SuperDraco abort thrusters, parachute deployment hardware, and much more.

According to Benji Reed, SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management, SpaceX’s Crew-1 operational astronaut launch debut remains on track to launch no earlier than late September. Capsule C207 and its upgraded trunk section are also reportedly on track to head from California to SpaceX’s Florida launch facilities in time to support that schedule and could ship east just two or so weeks from now.

Believed to be capsule C207, the Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured here in May 2020 is assigned to Crew-1. (SpaceX)

The only major (known) difference between SpaceX’s newest Crew Dragon and the spacecraft (C206) currently in orbit is the inclusion of upgraded solar panels on the ship’s expendable trunk section.

The trunk section is the cylindrical right half of Crew Dragon in this photo. (NASA)

Effectively an aerodynamic shroud and mounting adapter for the capsule, the aft trunk also hosts radiators for thermal management and a unique conformal solar array to supply the spacecraft with power while in orbit. It’s unlikely that Crew Dragon will ever utilize it but the trunk also serves as an unpressurized cargo fixture. That will allow Cargo Dragon 2 (based on Crew Dragon) to carry much larger external payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) once it starts launching later this year. Prior to its retirement in April 2020, the original Cargo Dragon spacecraft used a similar trunk section to deliver unpressurized cargo to the ISS more than a dozen times.

Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1) is similar in its overall design but distinctly different upon closer inspection. (NASA)

According to several comments made by NASA and SpaceX over the last few months, the only known limit to the first private spacecraft in history to launch astronauts into orbit (Crew Dragon C201) is its trunk’s solar cells. Seemingly discovered during some combination of ground testing and Crew Dragon’s uncrewed Demo-1 launch debut, the current version of the trunk suffers gradual solar cell degradation while in orbit, slowly reducing the amount of power the solar array can produce. Eventually, power output could degrade to the point that Crew Dragon would no longer be able to effectively charge its battery – a catastrophic failure if astronauts were aboard and the spacecraft free-flying.

The amount of time SpaceX’s Demo-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft can spend in orbit was actually limited ~120 days by that solar cell degradation. On a nominal operational astronaut launch, Crew Dragon will need to spend at least half a year (~180 days) docked to the ISS. Demo-2 was originally expected to last just a few days or weeks at most, so that shortfall was of minimal concern, but it did inherently imply that a sturdier solar array was inevitable and right around the corner.

Falcon 9 B1061 completed a static fire acceptance test in Texas in April 2020 and arrived in Florida for Crew Dragon’s next NASA astronaut launch on July 14th. (SpaceX)
Crew-1’s Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine – but not the integrated upper stage – completed its own acceptance test around the same time. (SpaceX)

Once Crew Dragon capsule C207 arrives in Florida, it will join Falcon 9 booster B1061 and likely be joined by the expendable upper stage and trunk section shortly thereafter. First and foremost, however, SpaceX needs to safely return Crew Dragon C206 and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth before it can launch Crew-1. As of now, the spacecraft is scheduled to depart the ISS as early as 7:34 pm EDT (00:34 UTC) on August 1st, followed by reentry and splashdown roughly 18 hours later.

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NASA picks diverse astronaut roster for next SpaceX Crew Dragon mission

With Demo-2, the final certification test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule nearing completion, NASA is looking ahead to future operational crewed missions. NASA previously announced that following NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s successful return from the International Space Station (ISS) in early August, three NASA astronauts and one Japanese astronaut of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) would soon be following on their own flight to the Space Station, SpaceX’s first operational crewed flight known as “Crew-1.” This mission is tentatively scheduled to occur no earlier than Fall of 2020.

Just days ahead of Demo-2’s anticipated conclusion, NASA, along with its international partners, has announced the roster and date of SpaceX’s third operational crewed mission referred to as “Crew-2.” Like Crew-1, the Crew-2 mission will feature a diverse international roster of four astronauts. Onboard will be veteran flyers, NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, along with JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Should everything go as planned with Crew-1, Crew Dragon’s third operational crewed flight, Crew-2, is scheduled for liftoff no earlier than the Spring of 2021.

The members of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station. Pictured from left are NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet. (Credits: NASA)

NASA keeps it in the family

One Crew-2 participant stands out from the rest, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur. She is a veteran NASA flyer having previously flown aboard the STS-125 space shuttle Atlantis mission in May of 2009. Although Crew-2 will be her second time to orbit, it will be her first visit to the ISS. During her first mission, she spent her time in orbit serving as a Mission Specialist servicing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. In 2019 she was appointed as NASA’s Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office ISS Operations Branch, a role in which she provides support to astronauts in training and aboard the ISS.

Not only is McArthur an experienced space flyer and well-versed in mission support, but she is also married to NASA astronaut Bob Behnken. While Behnken served as Joint Operations Commander for Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission, McArthur was back at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA training for her own Crew Dragon mission to the ISS.

McArthur was joined by her NASA and international partners Crew-2 crewmates to train at the SpaceX facility utilizing the Crew Dragon simulator. According to an interview with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, the entire crew has been at various training facilities located in Texas and California presumably for weeks familiarizing themselves with Crew Dragon and ISS specific training, just as Behnken and Hurley did prior to their Demo-2 departure.

Commercial and international crew will bring the ISS to full capacity

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough will fly for his third trip to orbit after having previously flown aboard space shuttle Endeavour for STS-126 and aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for Expedition 49/50 in 2016. Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will be the second JAXA astronaut to fly aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon following Soichi Noguchi on Crew-1. ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be the first European to fly aboard the Crew Dragon. It will be his second mission to orbit following a six-month-long stay aboard the ISS in 2016.

The 2021 Crew-2 mission will increase the number of ISS occupants from six to a full complement of seven. Crew-2’s four Dragon Riders will be joined by a three-member crew set to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The increase of long-duration crew members will allow NASA to “effectively double the amount of science that can be conducted in space,” as stated in an official NASA Commercial Crew blog post. The Crew-2 astronauts are expected to stay aboard the orbiting outpost for six months.

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SpaceX Starlink mission nears third launch attempt after six weeks of delays

For the third time, SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has headed out to sea to support a booster landing attempt after the company’s tenth Starlink launch.

Known as Starlink-9, the mission will be SpaceX’s ninth launch of upgraded Starlink v1.0 satellites and the tenth dedicated internet satellite launch overall. For reasons known and unknown, Starlink-9 has been the most delayed SpaceX launch in recent memory, slipping from June 23 to the 25th and 26th and then from July 8th, 11th, 29th, and 31st. Almost six weeks of delays recently culminated (so far) with a 24-hour slip from July 31st. Starlink-9 is now scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 3:21 am EDT (07:21 UTC) on Saturday, August 1st.

As unlikely as it may seem in the context of more than a month of delays, if that schedule holds, Starlink-9 will launch less than 48 hours after a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is scheduled to send NASA’s newest Mars rover on its way to Mars. Prior to the last two slips, Starlink-9 and NASA’s Mars 2020 rover could have launched just 24 hours apart, give or take, but that ambitious schedule did not work out for unknown reasons.

Drone ship OCISLY has begun its third trip to sea for the same Starlink launch after weeks of delays. (Richard Angle)

Just like the first attempt last month, Falcon 9 booster B1051 is still assigned to Starlink-9 and will become the third SpaceX rocket to launch five times when it finally lifts off. Starlink-9 will be the second launch of SpaceX’s Smallsat Program, carrying two BlackSky Earth imaging spacecraft into orbit atop 57 Starlink v1.0 satellites.

Built by Seattle startup LeoStella, two BlackSky Earth imaging satellites are pictured atop SpaceX’s Starlink-9 stack. (SpaceX)
Starlink V1 L8 saw Falcon 9 successfully deploy three Planet Skysats before the upper stage spun up and sent 58 Starlink satellites on their way. (SpaceX)

The first Starlink rideshare was completed without issue on June 13th when Falcon 9 booster B1059 and a new upper stage helped place three Planet Skysats in orbit before deploying a stack of 58 Starlink satellites. Likely worth around $1 million per Skysat or BlackSky-sized satellite manifested, Starlink rideshares are a long shot from actually funding each launch but still represent significant savings when projected over the dozens to hundreds of Starlink launches SpaceX has planned.

The general public got its first glimpses of the Starlink user terminals customers will use to connect to the orbital internet. (SpaceX)

According to SpaceX executives, 14 Starlink launches (~840 satellites) are needed before the company can seriously begin rolling out internet service to customers in the northern US and southern Canada. Several test programs are already underway in the form of private betas with SpaceX employees and families, while the first public beta tests could begin as early as next month.

As of now, SpaceX has completed nine Starlink launches since May 2019. Beginning in November 2019, eight of those nine launches have flown operational v1.0 satellites, meaning that SpaceX is likely six or so launches away from initial constellation operability. As of June 2020, it appeared that SpaceX could reach that milestone by the end of August, but Starlink-9’s unprecedented delays mean that the September/October time frame is now much more realistic target.

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SpaceX’s third NASA astronaut launch to reuse Crew Dragon and Falcon 9

NASA has revealed that SpaceX could reuse the next Falcon 9 booster and first Crew Dragon spacecraft scheduled to launch astronauts as soon as SpaceX’s third astronaut launch, scheduled for early 2021.

First, though, SpaceX must successfully return two NASA astronauts to Earth just a few days from now and launch another four astronauts – three NASA and one Japanese (JAXA) – to the International Space Station (ISS) just ~8 weeks later. Astronauts Bob Behnken are currently occupying the ISS as part of Crew Dragon’s inaugural crewed launch, which has been a near-flawless success up to this point. Those astronauts are scheduled to board the orbiting spacecraft and depart the ISS on August 1st and reenter Earth’s atmosphere roughly one day later on August 2nd.

It will be Crew Dragon’s second orbital reentry but also its first with astronauts aboard. If Crew Dragon performs as designed and capsule C206 is recovered without issue, SpaceX and NASA will debrief all teams involved, inspect the spacecraft and astronaut spacesuits, and hopefully certify the spacecraft for operational crewed launches.

Falcon 9 B1061, the booster NASA refers to above, arrived in Florida on July 14th ahead of SpaceX’s second astronaut launch ever. (SpaceX)

Mentioned above, the first of those operational astronaut launches will be known as Crew-1 or Post-Certification Mission 1 (PCM-1) and is currently expected to launch no earlier than (NET) late September. Crew-1’s launch date is almost entirely contingent upon the successful completion of Demo-2 and NASA’s subsequent certification of Crew Dragon. SpaceX is in the process of delivering all the rocket and spacecraft hardware needed for Crew-1 from its Hawthorne, California factory to launch and processing facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida and Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Believed to be capsule C207, the Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured here in May 2020 is assigned to Crew-1. (SpaceX)
In a major twist, NASA has effectively confirmed that SpaceX will become the first private company in history to launch astronauts into orbit. (SpaceX)
The Demo-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft arrived in Florida roughly 3.5 months before launch.(SpaceX)

New Falcon 9 booster B1061 completed a suite of acceptance tests at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas development facilities between April and June 2020 and ultimately shipped from Texas to Florida on July 11th, arriving on July 14th. A new Falcon 9 upper stage is likely close behind the booster and SpaceX will be able to begin integrated processing, culminating in a preflight wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire a few weeks prior to launch.

An expendable trunk and the new Crew Dragon capsule assigned to Crew-1 – believed to be capsule C207 – could arrive at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) processing facilities any day now. Prior to heading to Florida, the spacecraft must complete numerous acceptance tests, including hardware-in-the-loop launch simulations, the static fire of all four SuperDraco abort thruster modules and Draco maneuvering pods, a from of WDR, and more. After arriving, SpaceX will inspect every part of the spacecraft, complete any final outfitting needed, load the capsule with monomethylhydrazine (MMH) fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide (NTO) oxidizer, and install its trunk section.

Crew Dragon C206 was installed on its trunk by May 1st, one month prior to launch. (SpaceX)
Crew Dragon C206 was photographed in orbit by one of the astronauts that piloted it during a July 1st spacewalk. (NASA)

If Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule C206 is able to safely return astronauts Behnken and Hurley to Earth and make it back to dry land in one piece, it could become the first American space capsule in history to launch astronauts into orbit twice. The same goes for Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061: if it successfully launches and lands as part of SpaceX’s operational astronaut launch debut, it will be refurbished to become the first liquid rocket booster in the world to support two astronaut launches when it flies again on Crew-2.

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SpaceX Starship engine test aborted twice in one day by hurricane damage and bugs

SpaceX has been unable to catch a break in the last few weeks and CEO Elon Musk says that a Starship Raptor engine test was delayed twice in one day by minor hardware bugs and damage caused by Hurricane Hanna.

Although it quickly devolved into a tropical storm and largely missed the southernmost tip of Texas, where SpaceX has built its Starship factory and test facilities, Hanna caused significant damage just a few dozen miles to the north. Above all else, the flooding caused by Hanna has by far been the worst part of the storm. Boca Chica managed to dodge the bulk of that element but was still hit by heavy rain that lasted for a day or two, drenching everything that wasn’t covered and nearly flooding the only access road.

According to Musk, an unspecified “connector” related to Starship SN5 or the pad supporting it was damaged by Hanna’s glancing encounter with SpaceX’s facilities. The connector was ultimately fixed around 7-8 pm CDT per unofficial webcasts showing technicians working around the rocket after they returned to the pad, but SpaceX’s test window technically closed at 8 pm CDT (01:00 UTC).

Nevertheless, SpaceX must have been able to work with local sheriffs to extend that road closure into the night, and – as promised by CEO Elon Musk – testing restarted around 9:30 pm CDT. About an hour and a half later, Starship SN5 appeared to make it all the way through a partial wet dress rehearsal before its Raptor engine test fire was aborted a second time. Based on four static fires completed by Starship SN4 in May 2020, the rocket could have been just a few minutes away from ignition.

According to Musk, Starship SN5’s fuel (methane) “spin valve” – presumably a valve that opens to allow methane gas to spin up Raptor’s fuel turbopump – failed to open when it was supposed to. To ensure Raptor’s health after three inactive weeks spent installed on Starship out in the elements, SpaceX likely planned what is known as a “spin prime” test directly prior to the static fire. If Raptor successfully spun up its turbopumps, SpaceX would proceed directly into static fire operations without having to detank Starship.

During SN5’s second July 27th static fire attempt, Raptor was unable to start that spin prime test, forcing SpaceX to stand down to diagnose and fix the problem. Musk says that SpaceX will attempt to static fire Starship SN5 again tomorrow (July 28th) – assuming the issue can be quickly rectified.

Raptor SN27 was installed on Starship SN5 around July 3rd or 4th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN5 was forced to wait several weeks after its first cryogenic proof test to begin more challenging tests with a Raptor engine and real methane/oxygen propellant. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Musk further noted that some “odd…behavior” was observed in the hydraulic pump powering Raptor SN27’s thrust vector control (TVC). Used to steer a rocket engine, Raptor doesn’t technically need functioning TVC to perform a static fire test on the ground, but it’s an issue that will have to be completely fixed before Starship SN5 is allowed to attempt its first flight test. If July 28th finally sees SN5 successfully ignite its Raptor engine, there’s a chance – however slim – that SpaceX will be able to turn the Starship around for its first hop just a few days later.

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SpaceX eyes Starship static fire test later today [LIVESTREAM]

SpaceX is currently tracking towards the first Raptor engine static fire of its fifth full-scale Starship prototype sometime later today, although there is a strong chance of more delays.

Originally scheduled as early as July 8th, Starship SN5’s first static fire test – a crucial precursor to more ambitious plans – has slipped almost three weeks for unknown reasons. Like all rockets, Starship, its Raptor engine, and the launch pad are all extremely complex systems, so delays are to be expected, but SN5’s delays have been much worse than anything experience by its predecessors.

Regardless, at long last, it appears that there’s at least a chance that Starship SN5 will be able to put its Raptor engine to use in preparation for an even more exciting milestone.

Starship SN5 is backlit by a spectacular South Texas sunrise as technicians work to prepare it for an inaugural Raptor engine test. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, a large portion of those delays can likely be explained by the fact that SpaceX had to extensively repair and rebuild much of the pad’s complex ground support equipment (GSE). Needed to power, control, fuel, and pressurize Starship prototypes, SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch pad GSE was heavily damaged when operator error caused a gas leak that exploded shortly after Starship SN4’s fourth successful static fire.

As such, much like Starship SN4’s explosion was largely unrelated to the rocket itself, SN5’s weeks of delays may be primarily the result of working out kinks in the launch pad’s recently repaired (and possibly upgraded) GSE. Still, Starship itself appears to have contributed a bit. Notably, last week, at least one or two attempted tests were aborted before anything notable happened. Hurricane Hanna briefly interrupted operations on Saturday and Sunday, but SpaceX restarted testing today on Monday, July 27th.

Starship SN5. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Starship SN5’s static fire window opened at 8 am CDT (13:00 UTC) but teams continued to work on and around the rocket for several hours. A mobile lift finally lowered technicians that were working on the top of Starship – possibly hinting at issues with the vehicle’s communications and/or GPS antennas – around 1:45 pm CDT. The test window is open until 8 pm CDT (01:00 UTC), so SpaceX does have some flexibility and could likely wait as late as 6 pm CDT to start fueling Starship SN5.

Either way, NASASpaceflight will be hosting an unofficial livestream for at least as long as it appears that SpaceX is still trying to test SN5, while LabPadre’s 24/7 stream will continue to offer a more or less uninterrupted view of the rocket.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

The post SpaceX eyes Starship static fire test later today [LIVESTREAM] appeared first on TESLARATI.

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Safety panel concerned about quality control on Boeing crew capsule

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that flew on the Orbital Flight Test mission is pictured last November outside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

Members of NASA’s independent panel of aerospace safety advisors raised concerns last week about quality control problems that “seemingly have plagued” Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule program, while urging NASA to closely monitor SpaceX’s plans to reuse Crew Dragon spaceships on astronaut flights to the International Space Station.

An unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in December ended prematurely after a programming error in the capsule’s mission elapsed timer caused the ship to burn too much fuel shortly after separating from its Atlas 5 rocket.

The unexpected fuel consumption left the Starliner capsule with insufficient propellant to complete its flight to the space station.

The Starliner landed safely in New Mexico two days later, but ground teams identified another software problem in a propulsion controller governing thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, which jettisons from the Starliner crew module before re-entry into the atmosphere. Mission control uplinked a software patch shortly before re-entry, eliminating a risk that the mis-configured propulsion controller could have caused the jettisoned service module to ram into the crew module after separation.

There were also problems with the Starliner’s communications system during the unpiloted demonstration mission, known as the Orbital Flight Test, or OFT.

An independent review team that investigated the problems during the OFT mission issued 80 recommendations for Boeing and NASA engineers to address software issues, the communications problem, and management oversight shortfalls in oversight that contributed to the problems on last year’s test flight.

Donald McErlean, a seasoned aerospace industry consultant and member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said July 23 that Boeing is making progress toward resolving the technical problems. Boeing plans to fly a second, previously-unplanned Starliner Orbital Flight Test to the space station late this year, followed by a Crew Flight Test in the first half of 2021 with a three-person team of astronauts on-board.

“However, despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” said McErlean, a former chief engineer for the U.S. Navy’s aviation programs.

Boeing performed a pad abort test of a Starliner crew capsule last November, the month before the Orbital Flight Test. One of the capsule’s three main parachutes did not deploy after an otherwise-successful test of the spacecraft’s abort engines, and Boeing traced that problem to a missing pin in the parachute’s rigging.

“We realize that the CCP (Commercial Crew Program) has been working with the safety and engineering communities to address these issues, but this is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT and later CFT are conducted,” McErlean said.

The panel recommended NASA’s Commercial Crew Program “maintain a balance” between setting and achieving schedule milestones and ensuring managers make appropriate technical decisions, according to McErlean.

Boeing developed the Starliner spacecraft under contract to NASA, which is seeking to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX received a $2.6 billion deal in 2014 to complete development of the Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships.

The public-private partnerships were designed to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transportation to and from the space station.

While Boeing still has at least two Starliner test flights — one without crew members and one with astronauts — before the capsule is declared operational, SpaceX is nearing the end of the Crew Dragon development program. The human-rated capsule launched with astronauts for the first time May 30 on the Demo-2 mission, and delivered NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station the next day.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

Hurley and Behnken are scheduled to depart the station Aug. 1 and splash down off the Florida coast Aug. 2, completing a mission spanning more than two months. Once the Crew Dragon is back on Earth, SpaceX and NASA engineers plan to formally certify the SpaceX crew capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, beginning with a launch as soon as late September from the Kennedy Space Center carrying four astronauts to the orbiting research complex for a six-month expedition.

The mission scheduled for launch in late September — known as Crew-1 — will be followed by at least five more operational Crew Dragon missions through 2024.

NASA last month said it will allow SpaceX to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters for NASA astronaut missions. NASA says SpaceX could begin reusing Crew Dragon vehicles and Falcon 9 first stages on crewed launches beginning with the second post-certification mission, or Crew-2.

The Crew-2 launch is scheduled in February 2021. The Crew-1 mission — SpaceX’s first operational astronaut flight — is slated to fly with a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Each of SpaceX’s operational crew rotation flights to the space station will carry up to four astronauts, including space fliers from NASA and the space station’s international partners.

NASA has assigned astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the Crew-1 mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will join the U.S. astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“You are seeing the beginning of the rotational use of the commercial crew systems in transporting our astronauts to the ISS,” McErlean said.

In the safety panel’s July 23 public meeting, McErlean said SpaceX currently plans to refurbish and reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft that is flying on the Demo-2 mission on the Crew-2 mission next year. That crew capsule was named Dragon Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken soon after their launch in May.

SpaceX also aims to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket booster assigned to the Crew-1 mission again on the Crew-2 launch next year, McErlean said.

“So in this case, Crew-2 will be fully utilizing the SpaceX reuse philosophy,” McErlean said. “Although reuse has been successful in prior launches, the use of previously-flown hardware for a human spaceflight mission is unique, and it will create some additional work for NASA, who must address the human certification requirements.”

Boeing also plans to reuse Starliner crew capsules on multiple flights. Unlike the Crew Dragon, which splashes down at sea, the Starliner parachutes to an airbag-cushioned touchdown on land.

McErlean, speaking for the safety advisory panel, said NASA must also keep up with SpaceX’s philosophy of “constantly evolving vehicle designs” with an “ongoing formal safety-related process” to ensure the modifications remain within the agency’s human-rating certification requirements.

“With the completion of the Demo-2 mission and appropriate vehicle changes driven by the data gathered during that mission, NASA will have a essentially concluded the required certification process for flying NASA personnel on SpaceX hardware,” McErlean said. “However, it is the panel’s opinion that given the SpaceX approach to hardware upgrades, NASA has to decide by what processes it will continue to monitor vehicle and system changes to ensure that those changes still remain within an appropriately certified safety posture for human spaceflight operations.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.