With only days left before Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi embark on the first “operational” crew-rotation mission to the International Space Station (ISS), on Tuesday NASA officially certified Crew Dragon as the first commercial provider of human transportation services to low-Earth orbit.
The signing of the Human Rating Certification Plan came at the end of a thorough Flight Readiness Review (FRR) which has formally cleared Dragon Resilience to launch atop a brand-new Falcon 9 booster from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 7:49 p.m. EST Saturday, 14 November. With yesterday’s historic signing of the plan, Crew Dragon officially becomes the first new crewed spacecraft to receive NASA certification for regular human missions since the Space Shuttle.
“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who is expected to step down from the space agency’s top job early next year. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”
“Today’s signing is about the people across NASA, SpaceX and other groups that came together to complete an unbelievable amount of hard work to accomplish this task,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). “Certification moves us from the design and test phase into the crew-rotation phase of our work, but we will not stop making sure every flight, inclufing NASA’s Space Crew-1 mission, will be approached with the same rigor we have put into making this the best system it can be for our astronauts.”
Ever since SpaceX was selected alongside Boeing to develop and build Commercial Crew hardware—via the Commercial Crew transportatin Capability (CCtCap) contract award in September 2014—the program has followed a long road with multiple twists and turns. SpaceX completed a successful Pad Abort Test of Crew Dragon in May 2015, which AmericaSpace photographers captured in a remarkable folio of images, but hopes of a maiden flight by 2017 were hampered by year-on-year issues of underfunding.
Finally, amid great fanfare in August 2018, astronauts were named for the piloted test flights and operational Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) for Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.
An uncrewed Demo-1 flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS in March 2019, though in itself highly successful, was followed by an explosion of the capsule on the test stand a few weeks later. An In-Flight Abort Test in January 2020 finally allowed the return of U.S. astronauts to space, aboard a U.S. spacecraft, atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil, with the triumphant launch of Dragon Endeavour crewmen Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on 30 May. Their 64-day flight to the ISS thoroughly evaluated the capabilities of Crew Dragon and contributed substantially to yesterday’s certification.
“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “I could not be more proud of everyone at SpaceX and all of our suppliers who worked incredibly hard to develop, test and fly the first commercial human spaceflight system in history to be certified by NASA. This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the Moon, travel to Mars and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary.”
Also on Tuesday, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 booster and attached Dragon Resilience were rolled out of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to Pad 39A and elevated to the vertical.
Like the B1058 booster core which powered Hurley and Behnken uphill for their historic voyage, so the crystalline “whiteness” of the B1061 core for this flight is emblazoned with both the NASA “meatball” and new-style “worm” logos. The core and its upper stage arrived on the Space Coast in July, followed by Dragon Resilience herself in August. Last week, the spacecraft was transported to Pad 39A for integration atop the rocket.
Rollout to the pad was originally targeted for Monday, but as expected in remarks made at the crew arrival ceremony on Sunday the threat posed by Tropical Storm Eta led to a slippage to Tuesday. This correspondingly resulted in a 24-hour movement of the customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines to Wednesday.
The progress of Eta does not hold great promise for United Launch Alliance (ULA) either, whose Mighty Atlas V is now aiming for a Friday sunset liftoff to deliver the classified NROL-101 payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Already delayed since 3 November by a combination of a flow-rate reduction issue in the Environmental Control System (ECS), high winds at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the steadily worsening weather outlook, ULA anticipates launch no sooner than 5:13 p.m. EST Friday.
The risk of cumulus clouds, excessive ground-level winds and thick clouds have produced a forecast which is only 50-percent-favorable for Friday.
“There is less confidence in the forecast for Wednesday and Thursday,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. “While most model guidance point to gradually improving conditions starting late Tuesday, some drift Eta back closer to the Florida peninsula by Thursday, increasing winds again. If Eta does drift back east near the west coast of Florida, winds could become elevated…bringing also higher rain and cloud coverage with the potential for lightning during the day.”