For the better part of a decade, NASA and its commercial partners have been working toward re-establishing the United States’ domestic human spaceflight launch capability. SpaceX is performing its first major test flight for its Crew Dragon via the unpiloted Demo-1 flight to the International Space Station.
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Should all go according to plan, this mission is expected to serve as a dress rehearsal for the company’s first piloted flight, called Demo-2, later in 2019.
Demo-1 launched March 2 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Once in orbit, it began catching up to the International Space Station to rendezvous with and dock to the outpost’s International Docking Adapter 2 located on the forward-facing port of the Harmony module.
Approximate mission timeline
Launch: 07:49 UTC
Docking: 10:51 UTC
Hatch opening: 13:07 UTC
Hatch closure: 17:25 UTC (planned)
Undocking: 07:31 UTC (planned)
Deorbit burn: 12:50 UTC (planned)
Splashdown: 13:45 UTC (planned)
Demo-1 docked with the ISS at 10:51 UTC March 3 and will remain at the outpost for five days before before undocking on March 8 and returning to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Florida.
NASA and SpaceX completed a flight readiness review on Feb. 22, 2019. In a post-review meeting, several mission objectives were outlined. According to NASA these include:
Demonstrate in-orbit operation of the avionics system, docing system, communications/telemetry systems, environmental control systems (pressure, thermal, humidity, etc.), solar arrays and electrical power systems and the propulsion systems.
Demonstrate performance of the Guidance, Navigation and Control systems of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon through ascent, in-orbit and entry.
Determine acoustic and vibration levels, and loads across the Crew Dragon exterior and interior.
Demonstrate launch escape trigger monitoring.
Demonstrate end-to-end operations performance.
Other highlights, NASA said, include understanding the spacecraft’s “unique” requirements and operations from hangar assembly to the launch pad, including evaluating the new crew access arm and new rocket servicing equipment for the Falcon 9.
Additionally, NASA said Dragon is longer and heavier than the cargo Dragon, not the least of which because of the addition of launch escape motors and equipment used for docking.
While Crew Dragon is designed to autonomously dock with the International Space Station during each mission, should an issue arise, the space station crew, or a future spacecraft crew (Demo-1 is unpiloted), could intervene and take manual control.
Other operations being evaluated is the re-entry and landing operations. Crew Dragon has four parachutes and is expected to land in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has a new recovery vessel and is expected to get the spacecraft out of the water less than an hour after splashdown.
Countdown and launch timeline
Just like a regular Falcon 9 mission, the rocket was fueled beginning at T-minus 35 minutes. During future flights with crew, this means humans will be aboard the spacecraft as it is being fueled. This process, known as “load-and-go,” has received much scrutiny. However, NASA is comfortable with the process as any crew would be safely in Crew Dragon with an armed abort system. Moreover, at this point pad personnel would have cleared the area should something go wrong.
The following is the approximate timeline for Demo-1 per SpaceX and NASA:
Minus 45 minutes: SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for propellant load.
Minus 37 minutes: Dragon launch escape system is armed.
Minus 35 minutes: 1st stage liquid oxygen loading begins.
Minus 33 minutes: Rocket grade kerosene loading begins.
Minus 16 minutes: 2nd stage LOX loading begins.
Minus 7 minutes: Falcon 9 begins engine chill prior to launch.
Minus 5 minutes: Dragon transitions to internal power.
Minus 1 minute: Command flight computer to begin final prelaunch checks and propellant tank pressurization to flight pressure begins.
Minus 45 seconds: SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch.
Minus 3 seconds: Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start.
Minus zero seconds: Falcon 9 liftoff.
Plus 58 seconds: Max Q (moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket).
Plus 2 minutes, 33 seconds: 1st stage main engine cutoff.
Plus 2 minutes, 38 seconds: 1st and 2nd stages separate.
Plus 2 minutes, 44 seconds: 2nd stage engine starts.
Plus 7 minutes, 48 seconds: 1st stage entry burn.
Plus 8 minutes, 57 seconds: 2nd stage engine cutoff.
Plus 9 minutes, 26 seconds: 1st stage landing burn.
Plus 9 minutes, 37 seconds: 1st stage landing.
Plus 11 minutes: Crew Dragon separates from 2nd stage.
Plus 12 minutes: Dragon nosecone open sequence begins.
Editor’s note: This event has already taken place. More information can be found by clicking the link(s) below.