Crew-1 mission in final preparations as launch date aligns

by Trevor Sesnic and Lee Kanayama

With Crew-1 just weeks away, SpaceX and NASA have entered final preparations for the first operational Crew Dragon flight that will mark the first long-duration crew rotation mission to the International Space Station to launch from a country other than Kazakhstan since 2009.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon with Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi is now set to liftoff from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on 14 November 2020 at 19:49 EST (23:49 UTC) for a one-day trip to the Station.

The Crew-1 mission will be the first time SpaceX conducts a long-duration crew flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and will mark the first time since August 2009 that a regular, long-duration Station crew member will launch on a U.S. vehicle.

The mission will use a new Crew Dragon capsule: C207, which the Crew-1 astronauts have named Resilience.

In late-August, Resilience was delivered to SpaceX’s processing facilities at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  After arriving, engineers started a test campaign which consisted of three major components: electromagnetic interference, acoustic, and those based around the few tweaks/changes incorporated from lessons learned on the DM-2 mission between May-August 2020.

Crew Dragon C207 (Credit: SpaceX/NASA

DM-2 was a resounding success, with both NASA and SpaceX officials noting their happiness with Dragon Endeavour’s performance during the historic mission that returned human launch capability to the U.S. after it was voluntarily given up for nine years when NASA officials and Congress became too nervous about continued flight operations of the proven Space Shuttle architecture.

Of the changes incorporated to Resilience, the most prominent was a modification to a small area of Dragon’s heat shield that was observed on DM-2 post-flight inspections to have ablated just a little more than pre-flight predictions.

At no time during DM-2 was the crew in any danger, and the heat shield observation was not classed as serious.  Still, SpaceX and NASA opted to tweak the heat shield design for Crew-1 for additional safety margins.

In addition to preparing Dragon Resilience to flight, preparations are also underway at LC-39A to reconfigure the pad for the crew launch — which is the next mission that will launch from 39A.

Some of these pad preps include unstowing the crew access arm and preparing it for use, removing the ground service equipment on the Transporter/Erector that is used for payload fairings, and configuring and verifying the equipment that will be used to communicate with Dragon and the crew.

Once the pad change-overs are complete, Falcon 9 booster B1061 with Dragon mated atop will be rolled out for a series of tests.  The most visible will be the static fire, where launch teams will test entire configuration of the vehicle and put it through the same countdown it will go through on launch day. 

This includes fueling Falcon 9 and igniting all nine Merlin 1D engines on it baseThe main difference between static fire and launch day — aside from liftoff — is that the crew will not be placed inside Dragon for static fire.

Instead, the crew and pad teams will separately practice the crew’s day-of-launch activities on a separate day.  During that activity, the four-person international crew will then conduct a dry dress rehearsal, practicing the suit-up, transport pad, boarding, and countdown ops. 

During this, the crew — as well as launch and pad teams — will also practice procedures that would be used on launch day should they have to evacuate the pad under emergency conditions.

After these tests are complete, SpaceX and NASA will review the data from not just DM-2 and Crew-1 practice, but also from the preceding Sentinel 6A mission — which will launch from Vandenberg just four days prior to Crew-1’s planned launch date.

That mission will prove out engine fixes to the gas-generators the did not work as planned on the first attempt to the launch an unrelated Falcon 9 mission in September.

All of that data from previous missions and the Crew-1 pad tests will be fed into the Crew-1 Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and Launch Readiness Review — as will multiple other sources of data.

The FRR will begin approximately a week before the expected launch date, when teams from NASA, SpaceX, JAXA, and several other entities will give the final approval for Dragon’s flight.

Endeavour ahead of DM-2 (Credit: SpaceX)

After passing the FRR, Dragon will become the first private spacecraft certified for human flight.

Following the FRR, the teams will enter the Launch Readiness Review (LRR), which will begin two days before launch.  The LRR is the final technical review before launch and approves the readiness of Dragon, Falcon 9, the Pad Closeout Crew (SpaceX Ninjas), and all recovery teams.

Upon passing the LRR, Crew-1 will be officially cleared to proceed to launch day.

On launch day, the crew’s in-earnest preparations start at T-4 hour 15 minutes when the Mike, Victor, Shannon, and Soichi have their final weather briefing.  Following this, the they will suit up at T-4 hours.  Follow leak and pressure checks, the crew will depart for 39A in two Tesla Model X vehicles specially designed to transport the astronauts and the various air and data connects their suits require.

At T-2 hours 35 minutes, the crew will begin boarding the Dragon Resilience.

Once the crew has been loaded into Resilience and all of the SpaceX Ninjas have cleared the pad, the launch team will begin the final launch operations.

The SpaceX launch director will give a “GO” for to begin fueling operations at around T-45 minutes.  The crew access arm will then retracted to the launch position, and the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort system will be armed.  The abort system would pull Dragon and its crew quickly and safely away from Falcon during fueling or launch should an issue with the rocket breach safety guidelines.

This operation of arming the abort system and having it active during fueling keeps the crew safe in case something goes wrong during propellant loading.

At T-35 minutes, SpaceX will begin a procedure called “load and go,” which is when propellant loading is conducted rapidly and completes just two-and-a-half minutes before launch.  During this process, Falcon 9 will be loaded with approximately 544,000 kg (1.2 million pounds) of RP-1 kerosene and densified liquid oxygen (LOX).

At T-1 minute, the rocket will then enter “startup,” which is when Falcon 9 takes control of the countdown.

At T-45 seconds, the final “GO” for launch will be given by the SpaceX launch director.

At T-3 seconds, Falcon 9’s nine first stage engines will be commanded to ignite.  Three seconds later, if all has gone well and the engines have passed final health checks, the Falcon 9 will launch from LC-39A during a single second, instantaneous launch window.

After 2-minutes and 38 seconds, the first stage will shut down, and two seconds later will separate from the 2nd stage.  It will then perform a landing on one of the two Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS) located 510 km downrange in the Atlantic Ocean to be brought back to Port Canaveral for refurbishment and reuse on the Crew-2 mission, which is currently targeted for No Earlier Than (NET) March 2021.

Nearly 9-minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s 2nd stage will shut down, placing Resilience in low-Earth orbit.  At T+12 minutes, three minutes after reaching orbit, Resilience will separate from the 2nd stage begin its free-flight journey to the ISS.

DM-2 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

Dragon will then open its nose cone for navigation and docking preparation.  It will perform a series of thruster burns to boost itself from approximately 210 km insertion orbit up to the Station’s approximate 410 km orbit for a docking about one day after launch.

After getting permission to dock with the Station, Dragon will approach and perform a fully-automated docking to the forward docking port on the Harmony (Node-2) module of Station.

Once the crew is docked, they will stay at the ISS for approximately 6 months.  As a part of Expedition 64, the crew will greatly increase the ability to perform science experiments aboard the outpost, something that has been severely limited since March when the Station’s crew was reduced from six down to three permanent occupants due to a gap in Russian Soyuz seats and the start of long-duration U.S. missions.

With Crew-1, the Station’s permanent crew size will increase to the long-held goal of seven people.

About two-weeks after Crew-1, another Dragon 2 will launch to the ISS.  On the CRS-21 mission, a Dragon 2 cargo variant will stay at the ISS for a month.  Launching science, supplies, and the Bishop Airlock Module, it will be the first Dragon launched under the CRS2 contract and the first cargo mission to use the same basic “crew” Dragon design… just modded. 

Just before the end of Crew-1, the SpaceX Crew-2 mission will launch on B1061.2 and C206.2 (Endeavour), the same booster used on Crew-1 and the same Dragon used on DM-2, and dock. This direct handover will last about one week, before Crew-1 departs and returns to Earth.

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