What’s Ahead for Human Rated SpaceX Dragon in 2014 – Musk tells Universe Today

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch of Dragon spacecraft on March 1, 2013 to the ISS from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.- shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. During 2014, SpaceX plans two flight tests simulating human crewed Dragon emergency abort scenarios launching from right here at pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
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CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A trio of American companies – SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada – are working diligently to restore America’s capability to launch humans into low Earth orbit from US soil, aided by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public-private partnership.

We’ve been following the solid progress made by all three companies. Here we’ll focus on two crucial test flights planned by SpaceX in 2014 to human rate and launch the crewed version of their entry into the commercial crew ‘space taxi’ sweepstakes, namely the Dragon spacecraft.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak about the upcoming test flights with the head of SpaceX, Elon Musk.

So I asked Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, about “what’s ahead in 2014”; specifically related to a pair of critical “abort tests” that he hopes to conduct with the human rated “version of our Dragon spacecraft.”

“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests next year in 2014,” Musk told me.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite  from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two abort flight tests in 2014 involve demonstrating the ability of the Dragon spacecraft abort system to lift an uncrewed spacecraft clear of a simulated launch emergency.

The crewed Dragon – also known as DragonRider – will be capable of lofting up to seven astronauts to the ISS and remaining docked for at least 180 days.

First a brief overview of the goals of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It was started in the wake of the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program which flew its final human crews to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2011.

“NASA has tasked SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to develop spacecraft capable of safely transporting humans to the space station, returning that capability to the United States where it belongs,’ says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Since 2011, US astronauts have been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsules to hitch a ride to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

The abort tests are essential for demonstrating that the Dragon vehicle will activate thrusters and separate in a split second from a potentially deadly exploding rocket fireball to save astronauts lives in the event of a real life emergency – either directly on the launch pad or in flight.

“We are aiming to do at least the pad abort test next year [in 2014] with version 2 of our Dragon spacecraft that would carry astronauts,” Musk told me.

This is the Dragon mock-up that will be used for an upcoming pad abort test on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
This is the Dragon mock-up that will be used for an upcoming pad abort test on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX plans to launch the crewed Dragon atop the human rated version of their own developed Falcon 9 next generation rocket, which is also being simultaneously developed to achieve all of NASA’s human rating requirements.

The initial pad abort test will test the ability of the full-size Dragon to safely push away and escape in case of a failure of its Falcon 9 booster rocket in the moments around launch, right at the launch pad.

“The purpose of the pad abort test is to demonstrate Dragon has enough total impulse (thrust) to safely abort,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin informed me.

For that test, Dragon will use its pusher escape abort thrusters to lift the Dragon safely away from the failing rocket. The vehicle will be positioned on a structural facsimile of the Dragon trunk in which the actual Falcon 9/Dragon interfaces will be represented by mockups.

This test will be conducted on SpaceX’s launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

The second Dragon flight test involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives. The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted landing into the Atlantic Ocean.

“Assuming all goes well we expect to launch the high altitude abort test towards the end of next year,” Musk explained.

The second test will use the upgraded next generation version of the Falcon 9 that was successfully launched just weeks ago on its maiden mission from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 3. Read my earlier reports – starting here.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. The upgraded Falcon 9 will be used to launch the human rated SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date, SpaceX has already successfully launched the original cargo version of the Dragon a total of three times. And each one docked as planned at the ISS.

The last cargo Dragon blasted off on March 1, 2013. Read my prior articles starting – here.

The next cargo Dragon bound for the ISS is due to lift off on Feb. 22, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL.

SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013. Credit: NASA
SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013. Credit: NASA

Orbital Sciences – the commercial ISS cargo competitor to SpaceX – plans to launch its Cygnus cargo vehicle on the Orb-1 mission bound for the ISS on Jan. 7 atop the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Watch for my on site reports from NASA Wallops.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program’s goal is launching American astronauts from U.S. soil within the next four years – by 2017 to the ISS.

The 2017 launch date is dependent on funding from the US federal government that will enable each of the firms to accomplish a specified series of milestones. NASA payments are only made after each companies milestones are successfully achieved.

SpaceX was awarded $440 million in the third round of funding in the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCAP) initiative which runs through the third quarter of 2014. As of November 2013, NASA said SpaceX had accomplished 9 of 15 milestones and was on track to complete all on time.

Musk hopes to launch an initial Dragon orbital test flight with a human crew of SpaceX test pilots perhaps as early as sometime in 2015 – if funding and all else goes well.

Either a US commercial ‘space taxi’ or the Orion exploration capsule could have blasted off with American astronauts much sooner – if not for the continuing year-by-year slashes to NASA’s overall budget forced by the so called ‘political leaders’ of all parties in Washington, DC.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss Falcon 9/SES-8 launch by SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss SpaceX upcoming flight plans by SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 7 launch, Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 6-8: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 7”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon Grappled and Berthed for History Making Docking at Station Today – May 25

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The first private spacecraft – named Dragon – was berthed at the International Space Station (ISS) today, May 25, after being dramatically captured by the astronaut crew earlier this morning using the station’s robotic arm in a landmark event in space history – Dragon is the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the International Space Station.

“Capture is confirmed at 9:56 a.m. EDT [1356 GMT],” said Mission Control Houston commentator Josh Byerly, “as the spacecraft [Dragon & ISS] were passing about 251 miles over northwest Australia. Official mission elapsed time was 3 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes and 23 seconds when capture occurred.”

Two hours later, Dragon was successfully attached to the ISS at 12:02 p.m. EDT when 16 motorized bolts on the common berthing mechanism (CBM) latched and locked the cargo vessel to the Harmony module as the giant complex was soaring over the Pacific Northwest region of the US – concluding a dramatic day of momentus space spectaculars.

SpaceX has done it. They are the first private company to launch and dock their own spacecraft at the International Space Station. Dragon has been successfully captured.”

“Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail !” said a gleeful Astronaut Don Pettit of NASA who plucked the Dragon from space with the robotic arm as it was in free drift about 10 meters from the station.

Today’s successful Dragon capture and docking ushers in a new era in the history of spaceflight and will radically change the way we do business in space from this day forward.

NASA’s goal is to significantly drive down the cost of transporting cargo and crews to low Earth orbit by using private commercial companies to foster competition and innovation in the free market – much like happened with the airline industry of last century.

Screen captures from inside 40 m

The Dragon cargo resupply capsule is a commercial spacecraft designed and developed by SpaceX and was flawlessly launched atop a Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a historic test flight on May 22 to become the first private vehicle ever to rendezvous and dock at the million pound orbiting space complex.

Following a successful series of close approach rendezvous tests on Thursday, May 24, when it flew to the ISS from behind and below during fly-under maneuvers to within 2.4 km (1.6 mi), the commercial cargo carrier was cleared for final rendezvous, grappling and docking today.

Dragon at 30 m hold point on May 25

This morning at about 7 a.m. EDT Dragon was given permission to enter the so called keep out sphere (KOS) which is 200 meters from the station. KOS is an imaginary circle drawn around the ISS that prevents the risk of collision with the massive orbiting lab complex. The ISS is orbiting some 400 km (250 miles) above Earth.

Dragon utilized a combination of LIDAR laser ranging and thermal imagers sensors to determine distance as it closed in on the ISS to the final hold point about 10 meters (30 ft) away for final capture by two astronauts on board at work stations located inside the Cupola dome maneuvering the stations robotic arm. The Dragon’s thrusters are disabled at the 10 meter point to prevent an accidental firing and any undesired movement leading to a potential collision.

Dragon was commanded by the SpaceX flight control team based in Hawthorne, Calif, to slowly approach the ISS from below, gradually stopping along the way at ever closer hold points (250 m, 200 m, 150 m, 70 m, 30 m, 10 m) to confirm the crafts position and velocity and that all spacecraft navigation systems were functioning properly to insure a safe capture and berthing operation.

Dragon reached the 30 m hold point at about 9:14 a.m. EDT and then had to wait for final approval and before proceeding closer to the station.

Dragon arrived at the final 10 m hold point at about 9:45 a.m.

“Crew is ready for Dragon capture,” said ISS Astronaut Kuipers from the European Space Agency (ESA).

“You have a go for capture,” said Houston Mission control at about 9:49 a.m. EDT

The International Space Station as captured by thermal camera on-board Dragon during approach on May 25. Credit: SpaceX

Some stray retro reflections emanating from the external pallet on Japanese Kibo module affected measurements by the Dragons LIDAR system causing a minor 2 hour delay in final approach and grappling as the unit was recalibrated. Indeed one of the LIDAR units was taken offline due to suspect readings but the mission still continued. Since this is a test flight delays are to be expected.

Expedition 31 Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers worked in tandem using the Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and grapple the supply ship shortly before 10 a.m. EDT for berthing to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node later today.

SpaceX Dragon successfully grappled today, May 25, 2012 in a historic making feat by astronauts using the robotic arm aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:56 a.m. Dragon is the first private spacecraft to ever dock at the ISS. Credit: NASA TV

Pettit successfully grappled the Dragon with the robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT Kuiper accomplished the berthing a few hours later.

Pettit inspected the Dragon’s berthing mechanism with high powered binoculars after the grappling was done and found it to be in good shape for the subsequent joining to the ISS with sign of no damage from micrometeoroids.

“It looks like a clean interface,” said Pettit to Mission Control.

SpaceX Dragon successfully grappled today, May 25, 2012 in a historic making feat by astronauts using the robotic arm aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:56 a.m. (1356 GMT). Dragon is the first private spacecraft to ever dock at the ISS. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon is scheduled to spend about a week docked with the station before returning to Earth for a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on May 31 for an ocean retrieval.

For this initial test flight Dragon is loaded with over 460 kg (1100 pounds) of non-critical items such as food, water, clothing as well as research equipment and student science experiments.

The ISS crew expects to open the hatch and enter the Dragon for the first time on Saturday, May 26.

SpaceX has invested about $1.2 Billion in development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon space vehicles and also received about $381 Million in funding from NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative to develop commercial cargo vehicles to resupply the station.

Dragon will partially replace the cargo carrying duties that were totally lost when NASA’s space shuttles were prematurely and forcibly retired by US politicians after the final shuttle mission in July 2011. No American vehicle has visited the ISS since the shuttle shutdown. The US is now fully dependent on the Russians to ferry astronauts to the ISS for at least the next 3 to 5 years or more and the gap continues to grow as NASA’s budget is slashed by visionless politicians.

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct a dozen Falcon 9/Dragon resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a cost of some $1.6 Billion over the next few years.

The first operational Dragon resupply mission to the ISS is expected later this year, perhaps as soon as late summer.

Dragon at 80 m from the Space Station on May 25, 2012. NASA TV
Dragon at the 250-meter hold position, just outside the “keep-out” sphere of the International Space Station on May 25. NASA TV
SpaceX Dragon Commercial Cargo Craft Approaches the International Space Station on May 24, 2012. Credit: NASA

A mission status briefing was held at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss the day’s activities and all the days momentous events were broadcast live on NASA TV.

The high stakes Dragon mission to the High Frontier has been a resounding success thus far and its importance to NASA’s future and the future of human spaceflight cannot be overstated.

Ken Kremer

Toronto Teens Launch “Lego Man in Space”

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Updated:Jan. 30

Two teens from Toronto,Canada have launched “Lego Man in Space” using a helium filled weather balloon and captured stunning video of the miniature toy figure back dropped by the beautiful curvature of Earth and the desolate blackness of space that’s become a worldwide YouTube sensation – over 2 million hits !

17 year olds Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad lofted the tiny 2 inch tall Lego figure from a local Toronto soccer field up to a height of about 85,000 feet, or 16 miles (25 kilometers), where the 22 foot (7 m) diameter helium balloon burst in what is technically known as the stratosphere. The homemade styrofoam capsule – equipped with two video cameras and two digital cameras (Canon) – then parachuted back to Earth.

“We launched the project on January 7,” Mathew Ho told Universe Today.

“Altogether, we used 4 cameras, two cameras taking stills, and two taking video – Canon, Sony, GoPro – in the 1 cubic foot capsule,” Ho explained.

“After endless hours of hard work, we managed to capture stunning views of our atmosphere and put a ‘Lego’ man into near space!” said the ambitious teens who are 12th graders at the Agincourt Collegiate Institute.

The pair posted a YouTube video (below) documenting the entire voyage and some camera snapshots on their website on January 25.

Lego Man even snapped cool Moon shots – look closely at the video and photo below.

“Lego Man in Space” – The Video

The duo recounted the details of their sensational space tale of science on a shoestring for Canadian TV and newspapers.

“Upon launch we were very relieved. But we had a lot of anxiety on launch day because there were high winds when we were going up after all the hard work,” said Ho in a studio interview on Canadian TV (CTV).

“We were also scared because now we would have to retrieve it back after it came down,” Asad chimed in.

“We had no idea it would capture photos like that and would be so good,” said Ho. “We were blown away when we saw them back home.”

The toy Lego astronaut is seen standing atop a thin runway protruding precariously from one end of the small, box shaped capsule as though he was walking the plank and about to plunge into the ocean of space. All the while, cameras were aimed directly out towards him recording the entire rollicking journey from liftoff to the stratosphere to landing, with a constantly changing Earth in the background.

Altogether they netted two videos and 1500 photos.

Lego Man in Space shoots the Moon !
Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

Coincidentally, several Lego toys are constantly flying even higher above the Earth at this very moment aboard the International Space Station as part of an educational outreach effort by NASA and Lego. And 3 more Lego figurines are speeding to Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno orbiter.

Legoman’s spectacular journey lasted some 97 minutes. He’s beaming proudly throughout the video while holding the Canadian National flag – the Red Maple Leaf. The rollercoaster-like scenery may well challenge the stomachs of those with fear of heights.

The tumbling Lego Man in Space capsule upon the violent descent captured the moment before the parachute was activated. Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

Mathew and Asad worked over about four months one day a week on Saturdays to assemble the rig in Mathew’s kitchen and successfully accomplished the feat on a shoestring budget of merely 400 dollars. They used GPS trackers to locate “Lego Man in Space” and recover the intact capsule holding the imagery.

After the balloon burst at 85,000 feet, the parachute assisted descent back to Earth took about 32 minutes. Winds aloft caused the capsule to drift some 76 miles (122 kilometers) away from the launch site before landing at Rice Lake in one piece.

Lego Man in Space capsule after landing 76 miles (122 kilometers) away from the Toronto soccor field launch site. Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

“We were jumping for joy when we saw the capsule and the parachute. We were ecstatic when we found it,” said Ho.

“We have a long history of passionate building and working together,” Ho told CTV.

The project began after they saw that MIT students had sent a camera to the edge of space with a balloon and captured stunning views.

“We were inspired by videos and pictures we had seen online two years ago and we began working on this in the Fall of 2011. In total the project cost about $400 Canadian,” Ho told me.

“We hope to publish more pictures and video to our Facebook page and website soon,” Ho added.

And now we know another truth about Lego’s – Not only can they withstand the destructive forces of kids, but outer space too !