The United States Is Once Again A Spacefaring Nation
Astronaut Victor Glover discusses the trials and tribulations of getting two new man-rated spacecraft ready for flight.
The first Crew Dragon mission will send astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. If all goes well, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, this mission could happen during the first quarter of 2020.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft is an autonomous vehicle. Astronauts probably will not do much active flying during missions to and from the ISS, if all goes according to plan. However, when astronauts do take control it will feel like operating an iPad not like an F-18 fighter jet that Victor Glover is used to.
Two main technical issues remain to be resolved: parachutes and the in-flight abort system. The former is important because it’s how the capsule will land softly. The latter will hopefully never be used (although it’s been very successful in Soyuz launches), as it’s designed to pull the Crew Dragon away from a rocket disintegrating underneath.
First, in the parachute issue, designers need to go to a more advanced re-entry chute that has more durable Zylon lines connecting to the parachute canopy. Zylon is stronger than Kevlar.
A recent test of the Mark 3 parachute system was a complete success, with three parachutes gently guiding the Crew Dragon to a soft landing in the desert:
Beyond the parachute test, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will also need to certify the abort engines. This system is only used in case of an emergency during launch to rapidly pull the capsule away from a rocket disintegrating underneath.
This thruster experienced a catastrophic failure during an April 2019 test, now SpaceX and NASA have identified the problem and implemented a fix. This fix will be tested soon, possibly within the next month.
After Crew Dragon’s demonstration mission with crew is complete, astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins will be the next two NASA astronauts to launch aboard Crew Dragon. This launch, along with Boeing’s Starliner, will return the ability to launch humans into space from United States soil to the International Space Station. The last manned spaceflight launched from American soil was STS-135, bringing the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the ISS on July 8, 2011 and landing on July 21.