SpaceX conducts static fire test on Falcon 9 ahead of Crew Dragon debut

by Ian Atkinson

SpaceX has conducted the milestone of a static fire test in preparation of the historic Crew Dragon debut mission –  Demo Mission-1 (DM-1) – from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The launch will be the first orbital test flight of Crew Dragon, though without astronauts onboard. The Falcon 9 vehicle includes core B1051, on what will be its maiden flight. The static fire occurred at 4pm local time on Thursday.

The launch of DM-1 is currently scheduled for February 16, although a firm launch date won’t be known until after several key reviews that will follow the Static Fire test. Eric Berger reported a planning date of February 23 on Thursday. Following launch, the vehicle will autonomously dock to the International Space Station (ISS) around two days later and will spend several days at the station for checks and tests.

Afterwards, it will undock and make a parachute-assisted landing in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral. It will be recovered by SpaceX’s leased ship GO Searcher, and brought back to Port Canaveral.

The static fire test is a unique feature of the Falcon rocket family. The test consists of a complete dress rehearsal of all events that will happen on launch day through to engine ignition.

The test starts when the vehicle is rolled out from the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) onto the launch pad – typically three or four days prior to launch.

The vehicle is then raised vertical and filled with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 fuel. After a full countdown is performed, the nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage briefly ignite – marking the end of the test. The vehicle then rolls back into the HIF.

The short firing of the nine engines took place at 16:00 local time on Thursday. SpaceX took longer confirm a good test until several hours after the firing. However, this is likely due to the additional reviews that are involved with this vastly important NASA mission.

The first stage core involved in this mission is core B1051, a Block 5 core on its first flight. B1051 is special in that it contains the new Carbon-Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs), designed after the Amos-6 on-pad anomaly in September, 2016.

The new COPVs were designed to fix the issue that caused the Amos-6 anomaly, allowing them to become rated for crewed flights. During a press conference before the first Block 5 flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk referenced the new COPV design by stating, “This is by far the most advanced pressure vessel developed by humanity.”

Falcon 9 – including core B1051 and Crew Dragon – rolling out onto Pad 39A on January 3, 2019 for fit checks. Credit: SpaceX

On January 3, the complete vehicle – including Crew Dragon – was rolled out from the HIF onto Pad 39A. The vehicle then underwent fit checks – including rotating the new Crew Access Arm over to Crew Dragon, ensuring a good fit.

This event marked the first time that a crew-capable launch vehicle was at Pad 39A since the final Space Shuttle launch – STS-135 – in July 2011 – a gap of over seven years.

Falcon 9 – including core B1051 and Crew Dragon – raised vertical on Pad 39A, with the Crew Access Arm in a retracted position. Credit: SpaceX

DM-1 will also be the first orbital flight of a crew-rated American spacecraft since STS-135.

Ever since the end of the Space Shuttle program, the ISS partner countries have been solely reliant on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to launch their astronauts to the station.

NASA’s Constellation Program was intended to carry the torch of launching American crewed spacecraft to the ISS. However,  after the program’s cancellation in 2010, NASA turned to commercial partners to complement Soyuz in ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS.

One of the two spacecraft selected to take up this task was SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – then known as Dragon 2.Crew Dragon’s design is based heavily on SpaceX’s proven Cargo Dragon spacecraft – which has been flying successfully since 2010, and delivering cargo to the ISS since 2012.

Crew Dragon first flew in 2015 during its Pad Abort Test from SLC-40. After performing a static fire of its eight SuperDraco engines the day before, the capsule successfully underwent the test on May 8, 2015.

Although there was a slight underperformance in one of the SuperDraco engines due to a fuel mixture issue, the test still was a success and the capsule landed within the acceptable area off the shore of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Crew Dragon performing its Pad Abort Test at SLC-40 on May 6, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The capsule that performed the Pad Abort Test was not a complete Crew Dragon, however. It was made from a heavily modified Cargo Dragon pressure vessel and outfitted with mockups of some features that the complete Crew Dragon spacecraft will have – such as seats, windows, and a plethora of sensors.

This particular Crew Dragon was originally going to be refurbished, shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base, and flown atop the now-retired F9R Dev2 core on an In-Flight Abort Test. This test would have been similar to the Pad Abort Test, except performed while in flight and passing through maximum aerodynamic pressure.

That test has been heavily delayed and is now expected sometime around May 2019 from Pad 39A, using a regular, expendable first stage, a second stage without an engine, and the DM-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This will be followed No Earlier Than (NET) June by DM-2, the first Crew Dragon flight with astronauts aboard. This will be flown with a new Crew Dragon capsule – piloted by NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken – to the ISS. DM-2 will be both astronauts’ third spaceflights, having previously flown on the Space Shuttle.

The Dragon that will fly the DM-2 crew test flight under assembly. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)

Should the current schedules hold, DM-2 will be the first crewed American spacecraft in orbit since STS-135.

Following DM-2 will be SpaceX’s first operational crew transport mission to the ISS, appropriately named Crew-1. The crew will consist of Micheal Hopkins and Victor Glover, on their second and first spaceflights, respectively.

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