Commercial Crew completes training and prepares flight hardware

by Thomas Burghardt

Teams from NASA, SpaceX, and the Department of Defense recently completed medical emergency training at Cape Canaveral. Launch pads are receiving final upgrades, and flight hardware is beginning to arrive, as both Commercial Crew providers progress towards returning crew launch capability to American soil.
On October 25, an emergency simulation was conducted at the Kennedy Space Center to prepare teams for the unlikely event of an emergency during launch operations.

Teams from NASA, SpaceX, and the Department of Defense’s Human Space Flight Support Office conducted a medical triage and evacuation (medevac) exercise at Launch Complex 39A the launch site for SpaceX’s Commercial Crew missions.

This was the second such simulation conducted ahead of the Commercial Crew flight tests next year. A similar exercise was conducted with Boeing and United Launch Alliance (ULA) on June 19.

The scenario for the SpaceX simulation was a pad emergency and subsequent hypergolic fuel leak. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft’s Draco and SuperDraco rocket engines use monomethylhdryazine, a hypergolic fuel which is toxic and carcinogenic.

The Draco thrusters are used for maneuvering in orbit, while the SuperDraco engines are used as a launch escape system to pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket or emergency on the launch pad.

The launch escape system would only activate after the astronauts had boarded the spacecraft and the crew access arm had retracted. For the training scenario, the emergency occurred prior to the access arm retracting, so the volunteer crews were evacuated from the base of the Emergency Egress System (EES).

The Emergency Egress System and Crew Access Arm at LC-39A – via Nathan Barker for NSF/L2

The egress system at LC-39A originates in the space shuttle era, and consists of seven baskets that can each hold up to three people. In the event of an emergency, astronauts and ground crews would ride the baskets from the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) down slidewires to the ground.

The EES at 39A has been moved from its position during the space shuttle program up to the same level of the FSS as the SpaceX crew access arm.

The training simulation began at the base of the EES, where personnel were evacuated outside the pad perimeter using three Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The MRAPs drove to a point designated “Triage Site 8” between pad 39A and 39B, where they were met by three helicopters, emergency services, and the triage team.

A simulated patient is prepared for medevac – via NASA

Medical personnel at the triage site performed a simulated toxic vapor check on the evacuated crews. For the exercise, the crews were treated as if they were contaminated by the fuel leak, and the medical personnel performed decontamination procedures.

The simulated patients were stabilized and prepared for medevac. A selected group of patients were then evacuated via helicopter to several hospitals in the area to complete the simulation.

While launch teams continue to train for the upcoming demonstration flights, final upgrades to infrastructure at both 39A and Launch Complex 41, the launch pad for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, are being completed.

Both launch pads now have Crew Access Arms installed, which crews will use to board their spacecraft. Tests of both access arms in extension and retraction operations are expected in the coming months.

The Crew Access Arm at SLC-41 – via Nathan Barker for NSF/L2

The Fixed Service Structure at 39A will also receive a paneling upgrade to protect the tower from engine soot. The paneling is currently being stored at the launch pad, and is planned to be installed in three stages. The first stage to be installed will protect the portion of the tower including the crew access arm.

These upgrades prepare the pads to launch astronauts from American soil for the first time since 2011. The vehicles that will fly on these missions are in final preparations and have begun to arrive at Cape Canaveral.

In October, the Centaur upper stage for the uncrewed Starliner flight test arrived at Cape Canaveral from ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, transported via the Mariner cargo ship. Until now, the Atlas V has only ever utilized a single engine Centaur stage.

For Commercial Crew launches, the Atlas V rocket will feature a dual engine Centaur, in order to enable a flatter trajectory than uncrewed satellite missions. This trajectory is used to limit the g forces that the crew would experience in the unlikely event of an in-flight abort.

The dual-engine Centaur upper stage for Orbital Flight Test 1 is offloaded from the Mariner cargo ship – via NASA

The last time a dual engine Centaur stage was used was aboard the Atlas IIAS rocket, which was retired in 2004. The first stage of Atlas V that will launch the uncrewed flight test, designated core AV-080, will be mated to the Centaur stage and Starliner spacecraft next year. The uncrewed flight test is currently scheduled for no earlier than March 2019, with a crewed flight test in August.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher will also use a flat trajectory for the same reason as Atlas V. This means the first stage of Falcon 9, which lands at Landing Zone 1 after ISS cargo missions, will instead land on a drone ship in the ocean, as indicated by FCC applications suspected to apply to the uncrewed demonstration flight.

That Falcon 9 first stage recently completed testing at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. This puts the stage on track to ship to Cape Canaveral and be prepared for launch in December. The Crew Dragon spacecraft for the DM-1 mission arrived at Cape Canaveral in July.

SpaceX has informed NASA officials within the Commercial Crew program that DM-1 can be ready for launch in late December, pending the completion of pre-flight paperwork. The DM-1 mission FCC applications become valid on December 10, providing room to conduct the mission earlier if needed. Currently, the launch is still expected to take place in January 2019 as scheduled.

Following a successful DM-1, and an in-flight abort test, the crewed DM-2 mission is tentatively scheduled for June 2019. If schedules hold, the DM-2 mission will be the first launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in almost eight years.

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