NASA approves SpaceX path towards crewed Dragon debut

by Chris Bergin

NASA has approved SpaceX’s first Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) milestone. Known as the Certification Baseline Review, the milestone covers SpaceX’s plans for the design, manufacture, integration, launch and recovery of the crewed Dragon – through to her test flight – with the goal of achieving certification to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Crewed Dragon CCtCAP:

Arguably the most important near-term program under NASA’s stewardship, the Commercial Crew drive is aimed at returning crewed space transportation to the United States.

That independence was lost when Atlantis returned from her STS-135 mission back in 2011, effectively forcing NASA astronauts to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz – at a high premium to NASA – in order to continue an American presence on an orbital outpost that was mainly paid for by the United States.

While the near-term importance of returning a domestic crew launch capability to the United States is obvious, the funding to achieve that goal has been placed on a low calorie diet when compared to some of NASA’s more obese flagship projects, such as SLS, Orion and even the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

This is mainly due to the challenging allocation of NASA’s numerous budget lines, within the outlined program of record goals, all of which is heavily influenced by political direction.

2014-12-19 21_01_23-FPIP_working_20141208.pdfThe lack of a prioritized funding allocation has resulted in the debut mission of a NASA crew riding on a commercial spacecraft to the ISS – known as USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1) – slipping to what is now shown as launching in May of 2018 – per L2’s long term manifests. 

This slippage also results in a “Catch 22” scenario where hundreds of millions of addition dollars is being sent to Russia to cover the ever-increasing gap in NASA’s crew launch requirements.

Soyuz seat purchases are also expected to continue through the early phase of commercial crew flights, providing the contingency of a back up option.

2014-09-26 22_37_39-CST-100 Dragon - Google SearchThis year, NASA downselected to just two commercial crew options, Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon – known as Dragon 2, or V2 – with SNC’s Dream Chaser losing out.

While a protest against NASA’s decision has been lodged by SNC, the Agency received legal approval to continue to advance through the CCtCAP milestones with Boeing and SpaceX.

The Dragon V2 – now better known as the Dragon 2 internally – is a stunning vehicle, despite belonging to a breed of spacecraft – called capsules – that normally receive less enthusiastic comments from the general public when compared to the beautiful and iconic space shuttle orbiters.

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However, thanks to a sci-fi interior and a sporty Outer Mold Line (OML), this new Dragon is undoubtedly the first capsule that people would be forgiven for classing as sexy.

As revealed by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the end of May, the crewed Dragon is a major step up from her cargo hauling cousin.

Z9She will also, eventually, join SpaceX’s prime directive of propulsive returns and landings on terra firma for quick and efficient reuse. The opening missions will involve parachute landings.

But first, SpaceX needs to develop, build, test and fly the spacecraft – all while jumping through a considerable amount of hoops known as NASA-level certification requirements.

The sheer amount of NASA requirements likely explains why the first milestone to be completed under the CCtCAP contract involves a large amount of focus on the path towards certification.

Z7NASA noted that during the Certification Baseline Review, SpaceX successfully described its current design baseline plans for manufacture, launch, flying, landing and recovering the crewed Dragon, in tandem with outlining how it will achieve NASA certification of its system to enable transport of crews to and from the space station.

“This milestone sets the pace for the rigorous work ahead as SpaceX meets the certification requirements outlined in our contract,” noted Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is very exciting to see SpaceX’s proposed path to certification, including a flight test phase and completion of the system development.”

Z5The company hasn’t been making much noise about their advancements with the crewed Dragon lately, likely due to the ongoing legal protest from SNC. However, with this CCtCAP milestone, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, spoke of her pride in the team tasked with the ongoing work.

“SpaceX designed the Dragon spacecraft with the ultimate goal of transporting people to space,” noted Ms. Shotwell. “Successful completion of the Certification Baseline Review represents a critical step in that effort -we applaud our team’s hard work to date and look forward to helping NASA return the transport of U.S. astronauts to American soil.”

A large amount of work will be required ahead of the first test flight of the crewed Dragon, some of which is already ongoing.

2014-12-20 01_07_58-index.php (2500×1285)SpaceX is now deep into the conversion of the historic Pad 39A complex, ahead of next Summer’s Falcon Heavy debut.

This pad will also be the base from which NASA astronauts will once again head down the road next to the crawlerway, prior to boarding a space vehicle for a flight to the ISS.

Immediate milestones on the horizon related to the abort requirements, with a pad abort and an in-flight abort test on the books for next year.

Noted as big ticket items by Crewed Dragon Program Lead Dr. Garrett Reisman, the pad abort test – to be conducted from the Cape’s SLC-40 – will involve a flight-like Dragon and Trunk departing from a truss structure rather than sitting atop of a Falcon 9.

The in-flight abort test will utilize a Falcon 9 that will provide a real life test of the safety systems, with the abort occurring “not quite at Max-Q, but at Max Drag, which is in the transonic region” according to Dr. Reisman.

While this is being conducted, SpaceX will be pushing through another busy year with its “bread and butter” contracts, involving numerous satellite launches and CRS Dragon missions.

Should all go to plan, SpaceX will launch two missions in January, the SpX-5/CRS-5 Dragon and the DSCOVR missions.

SpaceX also recently noted to that it is set to achieve a milestone on its path toward sending humans to Mars next year – to be outlined in an upcoming article.

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(Images: via SpaceX and NASA – Plus L2’s ISS and SpaceX Sections, including Falcon Heavy rendering by L2 Artist Nathan Koga – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more – these are not official SpaceX images.)

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