Dragon ISS flight slips – SpaceX determined to return US crewed access to LEO

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 flight with the Dragon spaceship – a mission which is expected to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) – is slipping in order to allow for due diligence “safety checks” ahead of launch. SpaceX’s decision to slip what was a February 7 launch came after comments noting their sense of responsibility in returning US crewed access to LEO.SpaceX Mission Slip:

Following an official green light from NASA managers, the approved the combination of the Dragon C2/C3 (D2/D3) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) missions was set to launch from Cape Canaveral on February 7 – as much as the potential for a further slip was referenced during the launch date announcement.

Dragon will only arrive at the ISS if all of the requirements under the initial C2 demo objectives receive the joint approval from SpaceX controllers and NASA controllers – the latter located at the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston. Any major problems during the C2 flight phase will end the mission.

The first commercial spacecraft to attempt a docking at the ISS will also conduct a series of check-out procedures that will test and prove its systems in advance of the rendezvous with the station.

The primary objectives for the flight include a fly-by of the space station at a distance of approximately two miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach.

The spacecraft also will demonstrate the capability to abort the rendezvous, if required. Crewmembers on the ISS will also have a level of manual control via the COTS UHF Communication Unit (CUCU), which includes orders to abort the approach.

All three crewmembers on the ISS have previously been hands-on the hardware associated with the CUCU during a visit to SpaceX back in September. Dragon also requires two trained crewmembers to berth it, with Dan Burbank and recent arrival Don Pettit tasked with the docking.

Dragon will perform the final approach to the ISS ahead of the station crew grappling the vehicle with the Station’s robotic arm.

The capsule will be berthed – by the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) to the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node.

At the end of the mission, the crew will reverse the process, detaching Dragon from the station for its return to Earth and splashdown in the Pacific off the coast of California.

If the rendezvous and attachment to the station are not successful, SpaceX will complete a third demonstration flight in order to achieve these objectives as originally planned.

Next up in preparation for the launch was the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) for the Falcon 9 at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, which was expected to take place last week, or early this week. However, that has been postponed, along with the launch date.

The specific reason for the delay has not been revealed, as much as the slip is is expected to be only a matter of weeks.

It is not known if the due diligence checks are related to the launch vehicle. However, the mission profile had passed through the ISS Post Qual Review board before Christmas, allowing SpaceX to enter the final steps toward launch.

“In preparation for the upcoming launch, SpaceX continues to conduct extensive testing and analysis. We believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of this mission,” noted SpaceX in a press release on Monday.

“We are now working with NASA to establish a new target launch date, but note that we will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready.”

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The comment about launching only when the vehicle is ready is an absolute standard throughout the launch industry, yet the language of the SpaceX release matches the recent heritage of NASA managers tasked with providing a green light for a Space Shuttle launch.

The post-RTF era for the Shuttle earned a large amount of respect for NASA, as Flight Readiness Reviews (FRRs – L2 Link to Presentations) and Mission Management Team (MMT – L2 Link to Presentations) meetings often slipped a launch or delayed the target date late into the flow, avoiding the obvious strain of “schedule pressure” – something which can cause a negative outcome.

One such example of only launching when the vehicle is ready from the Shuttle era was seen ahead of STS-133, via deputy Space Shuttle Program (SSP) manager LeRoy Cain, when he made an internal address to his teams relating to the cracked stringer troubleshooting and mitigation on ET-137. (L2 Link to Presentations).

“If there is a way to make that launch period at the end of all of our work, where we have a very thoughtful and complete assessment of where we think we are as it relates to the risk associated with these anomalies, and we can do something within this launch period, then we will,” noted Mr Cain in November, 2010.

“If we can’t – then we won’t, and we are not going to do anything until we are ready to go fly safely.”

This alignment from a relatively new commercial company to the due diligence of seasoned shuttle managers should impress, as much as SpaceX are clearly fully aware of what they class as a sense of responsibility.

That responsibility is not only to re-establish the domestic cargo supply line to the orbital outpost for the first time since STS-135, but also to lay the foundations of the ultimate Low Earth Orbit goal of transporting US astronauts back to the ISS via an American launch vehicle and spacecraft.

“After the last Shuttle flight we were struck with an enormous sense of responsibility,” noted SpaceX communications director Kirstin Brost Grantham to NASASpaceFlight.com. 

For 30 years the Space Shuttle provided our country’s only means of carrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit. We are determined to get that capability for our country back just as soon as possible.”

SpaceX are currently part of the CCDev2 (NASA’s Commercial Crew Development) process, which is aiming to re-establish domestic crew transport to the ISS by 2015-2017.

(Images via SpaceX, NASA and L2).

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