SpaceX continues to make progress in orbit launch, but several critical tests remain before these plans are realized. The company is developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft to transport crews to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA's Commercial Teams Program.
The United States has not released humans into orbit since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Since then, NASA has been relying on a Russian rocket and a Soyuz spacecraft to launch U.S. crew members to the International Space Station. It happened at a high price – Russia is charging NASA $ 85 million in space.
"We prefer to be a real partnership when we launch their rockets, and they launch our rockets," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said during an Oct. 1
The Commercial Crew Program is delayed. When winning suppliers were selected in 2013, the first crew flights were scheduled for 2017.
However, the lack of funding from Congress in the first years of the program, combined with technical failures in recent months, caused the first crew
] Despite the delays, 2019 has made significant progress with SpaceX. The company successfully completed the Demo-1 mission in March. This mission saw the Crew Dragon capsule fly into the orbit of a Falcon 9 rocket for the first time, dock with the International Space Station and then return home with an Atlantic fill.
But there are also failures. SpaceX has been working on two major technical challenges over the last year. These include a major test bench anomaly and ongoing problems with the spacecraft's parachutes.
On April 20, the same Crew Dragon performing the Demo-1 mission had to perform a static fire test to check that its systems were functioning properly before an air interruption test.
The flight interruption test is when an undeveloped Crew Dragon capsule attempts to escape from Falcon 9 at the moment of maximum aerodynamic pressure on the launch vehicle.
The April static-fire test was a precursor to the loss of light – allowing the capsule to perform intermittent maneuvers while held to a test bench.
Static fire went awry – Crew Dragon exploded on the test bench. Therefore, the subsequent flight interruption test has not yet occurred.
The static anomaly of a fire occurred during the onset of an abortion system, a process that occurs only milliseconds before the Crew Dragon SuperDraco ignition.
After months of investigation, the anomaly is traced to a leaking valve motor in high pressure helium lines. Since then, the valve has been replaced by ruptured discs to solve the problem.
This investigation is now complete, which means that SpaceX is almost ready to go ahead with the aircraft crash test.
But first, the company has to repeat the static fire test.
Of course, the test could occur as early as early November.
Like last time, the Crew Dragon static fire will be conducted at a test facility located in the ground area of SpaceX 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
If all goes well, the same capsule will be used to run the light interruption test. The abortion test still has a chance to happen by the end of the year – assuming static fire will happen in the near future.
The crew dragon – designated C205 – for the two upcoming tests is now on the nose for finishing.
The C205 spacecraft was originally assigned to the Demo-2 mission. This mission will be Crew Dragon's first flight crew to the space station.
However, after the April anomaly, C205 was reassigned to perform an abortion test. This is because the original capsule for the abortion test – C201 – was destroyed in the April static fire incident.
Due to the reassignment of C205, C206 is now Crew Dragon for the Demo-2 mission.
This vehicle undergoes recent preparations at the Hawthorne California plant at SpaceX at SpaceX. If everything goes according to plan, it will be shipped to Florida for final processing by the end of the year.
SpaceX employees are working hard on Crew Dragon, which will soon restore America's access to space in this fast span of yesterday's Commercial Crew update, @Com Commercial_Crew @NASASpaceflight pic.twitter. com / DknPOLjiwy
– Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) October 11, 2019
However, at the October 10 event, Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk admitted that there was still a long way to go before he could make a flight for the crew – even if the hardware is ready by the end of the year.
Parachutes are probably the critical path to flight crew.  Incidents during SpaceX's parachute tests over the past year have raised safety concerns inside NASA.
Musk explained that while the current iteration of the parachute design – designated Mk2 – is "probably safe", SpaceX has decided to move to an improved Mk3 design.
The Mk3 upgrade features more durable lines – made of cyclone as opposed to nylon – and an improved stitching pattern, according to Musk.
To confirm their safety, Mk3 parachutes must be proven during ar
SpaceX plans to conduct a maximum of ten drop tests before the end of the year. This is expected to be the minimum number required to qualify a space flight system.
"We can use Mk2 data to help rank Mk3 as long as we see consistent recurring performance that matches Mk2," Bridenstine said. "If this is consistent, it will give us confidence that we will not have to do so many drop tests. If this is not consistent then we will have to do more. "
We had to reallocate some resources to speed this up, and we received a lot of support from Airborne, our parachute provider. I was at their Irvine factory with SpaceX's Sat and Sun team. We focus on the advanced Mk3 chute, which provides the highest safety factor for astronauts.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 8, 2019
Therefore, Bridenstine warned that while hardware could be ready by the end of 2019, the qualification campaign would probably last longer. At that point, the best case scenario would be to test the flight of the Demo-2 in the first quarter of 2020, according to Musk and Bridenstein.
Demo-2 is the last step required for regular Crew Dragon certification.
The Demo-2 flight will transport NASA astronauts Bob Benken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. The current plans require them to remain at the Space Station for about two weeks.
Due to delays with the Crew Dragon program, NASA is considering an increase in mission duration. This will allow him to act as a standard crew rotation mission – releasing some of the pressure in the schedule.
The forthcoming Boeing Equipped Test Flight (CFT) of their Starliner capsule has already gone on a longer mission.
The possibility of a longer Demo-2 mission has only recently emerged. The capsule originally intended for the mission was not suitable for a longer flight, according to ISS Program Manager Kirk Shereman, at a recent press conference.
However, changing the capsules from C205 to C206 for Demo-2 opened up the possibility of a longer stay in the Space Station.
Whatever the case, NASA is expected to purchase another Union site to help ease the pressure on the schedule.