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Dragon aces final NASA review, now set for test flight on March 2



 It's almost time for crewed flights on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft.
Enlarge / It's almost time for crewed flights on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX

On Friday, key NASA Officials gathered in a large meeting room at the Kennedy Space Center. Here, for decades, NASA's managers reviewed the analyzes about the next space shuttle mission and, more often than not, cleared the vehicle for launch.

That changed this week when NASA convened a "flight readiness review" for SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft for its initial flight test without people on board. By the Friday evening, the meeting was over and, the verdict was in-Dragon was ready for its demonstration mission as part of the commercial crew program on March 2nd. Launch time for the Falcon 9 rocket is 2: At 48am ET (07:48 UTC), from Kennedy Space Center. "I'm ready to fly," NASA's commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders said succinctly.

The mood was ebullient among NASA leadership as well as SpaceX's top official on the scene, Hans Koenigsmann, the company's vice president of build and flight reliability. He also participated in the flight readiness review in the storied room where there were so many shuttle meetings. "It was really great deal for SpaceX, and I personally," he said.

Crewed spaceflight has almost returned to the United States. This demo-1

mission must be launched successfully, dock to the International Space Station about 24 hours later, and then return to Earth a few days later under parachutes in lighted conditions. The first crewed mission from Florida to the orbit could take place later this summer from Florida.

NASA has waited a long time for this. The moment, since July 2011, when the space shuttle made its final flight and the agency retired the venerable vehicles.

A real test

This will not be a pro forma test. Although Lueders and the other NASA officials are comfortable with the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft for this test flight, there are still some issues they want to close out before astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch into space on identical rocket and kapsule. [19659005] NASA is still collecting data about rocket and spacecraft's composite overwrap pressure vessels, or COPVs, which are essentially bottles that store rocket fuels at extremely high pressures. Engineers also want to ensure that there is enough margin in the Dragon's parachutes for safe landing under various conditions and to study some concerns about the propellant feed system in the Dragon spacecraft. Finally, a mannequin will fly inside the vehicle during the test flight to determine the stresses on humans during the flight.

"The vehicle is not fully qualified for flight crew, but we know hardware is good enough for this flight" said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of human spaceflight. "

One outstanding issue

In reference to the March 2 launch date, Gerstenmaier cited only one outstanding issue having to do with software related to the vehicle's approach. to the International Space Station. Normally, an autonomous vehicle will have a primary computer system to control its flight, and a separate, isolated box to handle this function if the main computers go down. The crew dragon does not have this function.

Russia, NASA's main partner on the station, has raised concerns about this, noting that if this system goes out, the spacecraft may drift and crash into the station. Gerstenmaier said he believes that NASA has a "sufficient reason" for the Dragon's computer system as it is, and that he expects to work on the issue with Russian officials this week before the launch.

The station has a busy schedule in March and April, so there is a fairly narrow margin for getting this flight off the ground. The next Russian Soyuz crew is scheduled for March 14, and there are three spacewalks and two cargo missions in late March and April. Anticipating potential weather or technical issues, SpaceX should have three opportunities to launch between March 2 and March 9, but if it misses this window it is unclear when the company would have another attempt.


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