SpaceX has revealed more details into its upcoming drive to bring the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft on line, in its bid to return a domestic crew transportation system to the United States. Near term milestones include two abort tests, ahead of launching a crew on the Dragon V2, following what SpaceX estimates will have been after 50 flights of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
SpaceX updated the current status of the Dragon V2 (or Dragon 2) via a NASA briefing alongside the other Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) award winner, Boeing and its CST-100 spacecraft.
The update comes after a legal protest by the CCtCAP loser, SNC and its Dream Chaser spacecraft, was recently thrown out, although NASA had allowed SpaceX and Boeing to continue work for the interim.
Coming out of this blackout period was classed as “an early Christmas present” by Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, although she intimated NASA is hoping to continue to work with SNC through to a second free flight test.
The goal for the Commercial Crew Program is a huge priority for NASA and the United States, as it aims to return a domestic crew launch and transportation capability to its astronauts for the first time since Atlantis concluded her STS-135 mission in 2011, ending the three decade long career of the Space Shuttle fleet.
Since then, NASA has been paying for seats on the Russian Soyuz in order to allow for a continued US presence on the International Space Station (ISS), in turn draining the Agency’s limited financial resources by effectively outsourcing crew transportation to the Russians.
“I hope I never have to write another check to Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency),” noted NASA administrator Charlie Bolden during the media event.
While NASA class Commercial Crew as a flagship program, its funding forecast continues to place a strain on the IOC (Initial Operating Capability) targets, likely resulting in the first NASA crew to ride on a certified commercial vehicle to the ISS not occurring until 2017 at the earliest.
In fact, NASA’s own internal schedules show that first NASA crewed mission – 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.
However, that schedule is based on “conservative stretch” for long-term program goals. Current targets show both commercial partners continuing to aim for a 2017 operational stance.
To get to that point, a vast amount work is required, with SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell updating the current near term goals for the crewed Dragon program.
Leveraging the company’s experience with the Cargo Dragon spacecraft – one of which is currently berthed on the ISS during her CRS-5/SpX-5 mission – SpaceX is deep into work to upgrade the vehicle to be able to carry crew.
That work resulted in the revealing of a spacecraft with a new Outer Mold Line (OML), a trunk with fins, along with a sci-fi “ease of use” interior and control panel.
“We understand, and we have been told, that crew (flight) is clearly different – so there’s a number of upgrades that we’ve been working on for the past few years to ensure this crew version of Dragon is as reliable as it can possibly be,” noted Ms. Shotwell.
“Ultimately, we plan for it to be the most reliable spacecraft flying crew ever.”
One of the big leap forwards is Dragon’s Integrated Launch Abort System (LAS), which provides a full abort capability through ascent.
Eight liquid SuperDraco engines, built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft, will be capable of producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to drive the Dragon away from its failing launch vehicle.
These engines were recently tested at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas.
However, it is their future role that will provide one of Dragon’s unique charms – the ability for propulsive landings.
Initially, the crewed Dragon will return under parachutes for an ocean splashdown, as is the case with the cargo Dragon. The “ultimate goal” – according to Ms. Shotwell – is for fully propulsive landings, mirroring the ongoing efforts with the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage.
“Fully propulsive landings is, I believe, in the best interests of the astronauts. I would love to see this vehicles land right here at Ellington Field.”
With safety a key thread throughout Ms. Shotwell’s overview, SpaceX is aiming to fly “many” Falcon 9 missions to get “comfortable” with the rocket.
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“We should fly over 50 Falcon 9 missions prior to putting a crew atop of that vehicle.”
Up next are two abort tests, the first involving a Pad Abort, followed later in the year by the In Flight Abort test.
The pad abort test will utilize a very flight-like Dragon and Trunk, departing from a truss structure rather than sitting atop of a Falcon 9, according to early comments by Crewed Dragon Program Lead Dr. Garrett Reisman last year.
“We just largely completed the build of the pad abort system,” Ms. Shotwell continued during Monday’s update. “It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovations in that pad abort vehicle.
“That test will be coming in a month or so from Cape Canaveral. We’re very excited about that.”
The In Flight Abort test will utilize a Falcon 9 that will provide a real life test of an abort “not quite at Max-Q, but at Max Drag, which is in the transonic region,” per Dr. Reisman’s earlier comments.
“We plan to fly a modified Falcon 9 as the launch vehicle and then have Dragon punch out right when we hit that criteria,” he noted.
No specific date for the In Flight Abort test was mentioned during Monday’s event, other than later in 2015.
“The In Flight Abort will test the highest dynamic regime of this crew capsule and the Falcon 9 system, (scheduled for) later this year,” added Ms. Shotwell, noting SpaceX has a few “environmental hurdles” to get through ahead of the test.
Successful testing and continued progress with getting the crewed Dragon ready to fly in space for real will then be the focus of the company for the following few years.
“As far as the overall flight test program, we anticipate doing our uncrewed mission to the International Space Station with the upgraded crew vehicle later in 2016, shortly thereafter with our crewed flight in early 2017,” noted Ms. Shotwell.
It has not yet been decided if the test flight will be either a SpaceX crew, a NASA crew, or a mix of the two.
An article outlining Boeing’s CST-100 progress will follow this week.
(Images: via NASA, SpaceX and L2’s SpaceX Section, including renderings created by L2 Artists Nathan Koga and Jeffrey Channell – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH Dragon V2, BFR renderings and more – these are not official SpaceX images.)
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