SpaceX set for historic Crew Dragon test flight

Katie Ramirez
March 2, 2019

Routine missions to the space station could start later this year. NASA is providing $8 billion for SpaceX and Boeing to build and operate these new systems.

SpaceX, in the first test demonstration of a commercial crew capsule created to send astronauts to the International Space Station, plans to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Saturday, March 2, at 2:49 a.m. ET, from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

On Thursday, SpaceX and NASA got the Falcon 9 rocket upright at the historic Launch Complex 39A, the same pad many astronauts departed the planet from during NASA's Space Shuttle era.

California's SpaceX firm is performing a demonstration of a new rocket and capsule system, which, if it works well, will be approved to carry people. Reuters reported on February 21 that SpaceX and Boeing both must address significant design and safety concerns before they can fly humans. The Crew Dragon is created to fly astronauts to the International Space Station on the company's Falcon 9 rocket as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. And eight engines are built into the capsule walls for use in an emergency; these abort engines could shoot the capsule off a malfunctioning rocket anytime during the launch. It also brings a bit of anthropomorphic gender balance to SpaceX's test mannequins: For last year's maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the test payload included a Tesla Roadster with a dummy nicknamed "Starman" in the driver's seat.

The excitement was palpable Friday at Cape Canaveral, where a day earlier the rocket was wheeled out of its hangar and staged in a vertical position on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo Moon missions took off.

"We instrumented the crap out of that vehicle", said Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew program.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A

This mission is a night owl's dream, with most of the big events happening in the wee hours. Liftoff is set for 2:49 a.m. EST (0749 GMT) from Pad 39A - the exact same site used by NASA's Apollo moon shots and where, almost eight years ago, the agency launched its final space shuttle mission.

Its Falcon 9 rockets have resupplied the space station 15 times in seven years, even though one of them blew up in 2015. The three space station astronauts will enter the Dragon, unload the fresh supplies on board and then fill it with science samples and old equipment. It will then head back to Earth on March 8 where it will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred kilometres off the Florida coast.

"Space weather is important because it can have profound impacts-affecting technology and astronauts in space, disrupting radio communications and, at its most severe, overwhelming power grids", says NASA.

Saturday's eagerly-anticipated launch is the first under NASA's Commercial Crew Program. It will not be tested until April, in a mission similar to SpaceX's.

If all goes well, SpaceX's Crew Dragon could be the first American spacecraft to ferry astronauts to space from US soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011 - and Ripley is getting a first taste of what that'll feel like. Hurley will ride the Dragon and Ferguson the Starliner.

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