NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX – marking a major milestone towards restoring American human launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well.

The four astronauts chosen are all veterans of flights on NASA’s Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station (ISS); Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They now form the core of NASA’s commercial crew astronaut corps eligible for the maiden test flights on board the Boeing CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut capsules.

Behnken, Boe and Hurley have each launched on two shuttle missions and Williams is a veteran of two long-duration flights aboard the ISS after launching on both the shuttle and Soyuz. All four served as military test pilots prior to being selected as NASA astronauts.

The experienced quartet of space flyers will work closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they begin training and prepare to launch aboard the first ever commercial ‘space taxi’ ferry flight missions to the ISS and back – that will also end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for crewed missions to low-Earth orbit and further serve to open up space exploration and transportation services to the private sector.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“I am pleased to announce four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail — a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The selection of astronauts for rides with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) comes almost exactly four years to the day since the last American manned space launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the space station on July 8, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew and served as shuttle pilot under NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew program. Read my earlier exclusive interviews with Ferguson about the CST-100 – here and here.

Since the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back, at a current cost of over $70 million per seat.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden elaborated. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.

Behnken, Boe, Hurley and Williams are all eager to work with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to “understand their designs and operations as they finalize their Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and operational strategies in support of their crewed flight tests and certification activities as part of their contracts with NASA.”

Until June 2015, Williams held the record for longest time in space by a woman, accumulating 322 days in orbit. Behnken is currently the chief of the astronaut core and conducted six space walks at the station. Boe has spent over 28 days in space and flew on the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery in Feb. 2011 on STS-133.

The first commercial crew flights under the CCtCAP contract could take place in 2017 with at least one member of the two person crews being a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member could be a company test pilot as the details remain to be worked out.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

The actual launch date depends on the NASA budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Program approved by the US Congress.

Congress has never approved NASA’s full funding request for the CCP program and has again cut the program significantly in initial votes this year. So the outlook for a 2017 launch is very uncertain.

Were it not for the drastic CCP cuts we would be launching astronauts this year on the space taxis.

“Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy,” Bolden emphasizes about the multifaceted benefits of the commercial crew initiative.

Under the CCtCAP contract, NASA recently ordered the agency’s first commercial crew mission from Boeing – as outlined in my story here. SpaceX will receive a similar CCtCAP mission order later this year.

At a later date, NASA will decide whether Boeing or SpaceX will launch the actual first commercial crew test flight mission to low Earth orbit.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“This is a new and exciting era in the history of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

“These four individuals, like so many at NASA and the Flight Operations Directorate, have dedicated their careers to becoming experts in the field of aeronautics and furthering human space exploration. The selection of these experienced astronauts who are eligible to fly aboard the test flights for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to the ISS and low-Earth orbit ensures that the crews will be well-prepared and thoroughly trained for their missions.”

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.
The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It enjoys a 100% success rate.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It enjoyed a 100% success rate until last weeks launch on its 19th flight which ended with an explosion two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, as I reported here. The goal was to test the spacecrafts abort systems that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the case of a launch emergency such as occurred during the June 28 rocket failure in flight that was bound for the ISS with the initial cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon.

SpaceX plans an unmanned orbital test flight of Crew Dragon perhaps by the end of 2016. The crewed orbital test flight would follow sometime in 2017.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Completes Successful Crew Dragon Test of Astronaut Life Saving Escape System

Soaring on the power of an octet of SuperDrago engines, SpaceX successfully completed a critical rapid fire life-saving test of their Dragon crew capsules pad abort emergency escape system that would ignite in a split second to save the astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a failure of the Falcon 9 booster rocket at the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon roared swiftly skywards upon ignition of the test vehicle’s integrated SuperDraco engines at 9 a.m EDT this morning, Wednesday, May 6, for the mile high test conducted from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a specially built platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

A human-sized crash test dummy was seated inside for the test exercise which ended safely with a parachute assisted Atlantic Ocean splashdown after less than two minutes. There were no astronauts aboard.

The SuperDraco engines fired for approximately six seconds and accelerated the crew Dragon “from 0 to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds. It reached a top speed of about 345 mph,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a post test briefing.

“This bodes quite well for the future of the program. I don’t want to jinx it, but this is really quite a good indication for the future of Dragon.” said Elon Musk.

“We hope to launch the first crews to the ISS within about two years, plus or minus six months.”

The side mounted escape engines mark a revolutionary change from the traditional top mounted launch escape system used previously in the Mercury, Apollo, Soyuz and Orion human spaceflight capsules. The space shuttle had no escape system beyond ejections seats used on the first four flights.

Dragon was mounted atop the finned trunk section for the test. The entire Dragon/trunk assembly was about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

The test is a critical milestone towards the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring crew safety for government and commercial endeavors in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Congratulations to SpaceX on what appears to have been a successful test on the company’s road toward achieving NASA certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to and from the International Space Station.”

Here is a video of the Pad Abort Test:

Video caption: Powered by its SuperDraco engines, the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon flies through its paces in the Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA

After all the monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide hypergolic propellants were consumed, Dragon soared as planned to an altitude of about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad. At about T+21 seconds the trunk was jettisoned and the spacecraft began a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again as it arced out eastwards over the ocean.

The drogue chutes and trio of red and white main parachutes deployed as planned for a picturesque Dragon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore of its Cape Canaveral launch pad. The capsule was retrieved from the ocean by waiting recovery boats.

Today’s pad abort demonstration tested the ability of the set of eight SuperDraco engines integrated directly into the side walls of the crew Dragon to ignite simultaneously and pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second – in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

Therefore the Pad Abort Test did not include an actual Falcon 9 booster since it was focused on a checkout of the capsule’s escape capability.

Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA
Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs built into the capsule around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds in under one second, to propel the astronauts safely away.

The entire test lasted less than two minutes.

The test was webcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The crew Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

The pad abort test was accomplished under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

A second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) 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 splashdown into the ocean.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX, at a prelaunch briefing.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Buster the Dummy Strapped in for Mile High SpaceX Dragon Flight Test

SpaceX and NASA are just days away from a crucial test of a crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a launch failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Buster the Dummy is already strapped into his seat aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon test vehicle for what is called the Pad Abort Test, that is currently slated for Wednesday, May 6.

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Boeing was also selected by NASA to build the CST-100 spaceship to provide a second, independent crew space taxi capability to the ISS during 2017.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in May 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The SpaceX Dragon and trunk together stand about 20 feet tall and are positioned atop the launch mount at SLC-40 for what is clearly labeled as a development test to learn how the Dragon, engines and abort system perform.

Buster will soar along inside the Dragon that will be rapidly propelled to nearly a mile high height solely under the power of eight SpaceX SuperDraco engines.

The trunk will then separate, parachutes will be deployed and the capsule will splashdown about a mile offshore from Florida in the Atlantic Ocean, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during a May 1, 2015 press briefing on the pad abort test at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The entire test will take about a minute and a half and recovery teams will retrieve Dragon from the ocean and bring it back on shore for detailed analysis.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV. The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT. The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

The test is designed to simulate an emergency escape abort scenario from the test stand at the launch pad in the unlikely case of booster failing at liftoff or other scenario that would threaten astronauts inside the spacecraft.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety, according to Koenigsmann.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

SpaceX and NASA hope to refurbish and reuse the same Dragon capsule for another abort test at high altitude later this year. The timing of the in flight abort test hinges on the outcome of the pad abort test.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Beside Buster the dummy, who is human-sized, the Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

“There’s a lot of instrumentation on this flight – a lot,” Koenigsmann said. “Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck. At the end of the day, that’s the point of tests, to get lots of data.”

Buster will be accelerated to a force of about 4 to 4½ times the force of Earth’s gravity, noted Koenigsmann.

The pad abort test is being done under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

“The point is to gather data – you don’t have to have a flawless test to be successful,” Cowart said.

The second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) 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 splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

“Whatever happens to Falcon 9, you will be able to pull out the astronauts and land them safely on this crew Dragon,” said Koenigsmann. “In my opinion, this will make it the safest vehicle that you can possibly fly.”

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as the worlds privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014 news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Spectacular 5th SpaceX Launch in 2015 Sets Record Pace, Clears Path for Critical Flights Ahead

SpaceX set a new internal record pace for time between blastoffs of their workhorse Falcon 9 rocket with Monday’s spectacular dusky liftoff of Turkmenistan’s first satellite into heavily overcast skies that has cleared the path ahead for a busy manifest of critical flights starting with a critical pad abort test for NASA just a week from today.

After a 49 minute delay due to grim weather conditions, weather officials finally found a “window in the clouds” that permitted the Falcon 9 to launch on Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:03pm EDT (2303 GMT).

The launch took place just 13 days after successfully launching the SpaceX Dragon CRS-6 resupply freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA on April 14.

Overall this launch marked Falcon 9’s fifth launch in four months and second in 13 days, besting SpaceX’s previous turnaround record by one day.

But it was touch and go all afternoon, when two weather rules related to cloudy conditions violated the launch commit criteria and forced a no go from the originally planned 6:14 liftoff time.

The situation was not at all promising when the weather officer announced “NO GO” during the prelaunch poll that resulted in a recycle to the T minus 20 minute mark with seemingly little prospect of a launch. Then all of a sudden, conditions improved and the count was resumed and “wet off without a hitch” said SpaceX.

On April 27, 2015 at 7:03 p.m. EDT, Falcon 9 lifted off from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite. Credit: SpaceX
On April 27, 2015 at 7:03 p.m. EDT, Falcon 9 lifted off from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite. Credit: SpaceX

The 224 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 launched on a commercial mission for Thales Alenia Space carrying the first ever communications satellite for the nation of Turkmenistan.

The TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space.

Launch sequence showing blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on April 27, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Chuck and Carol Higgins
Launch sequence showing blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on April 27, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Chuck and Carol Higgins

The 14 story Falcon 9 first stage is powered by 9 Merlin 1D engines that generate about 1.3 million pounds of thrust.

The Falcon 9’s first and second stages separated three minutes after launch. The second stage fired for six minutes for its first burn to reach the initial parking orbit. It then reignited twenty-six minutes into flight, to completed a one-minute burn.

Rocket cameras capture In flight view of Falcon 9 second stage engine firing back dropped by Earth. Credit: SpaceX
Rocket cameras capture In flight view of Falcon 9 second stage engine firing back dropped by Earth. Credit: SpaceX

The launch delivered the 10,375-pound (4500 kg) TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite to a geosynchronous transfer orbit. The satellite was deployed as planned approximately 32 minutes after liftoff.

Launches are never easy, as exemplified by a post launch tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk after the satellite was deployed from the second stage.

‘Rocket launch good, satellite in geo transfer orbit. Still so damn intense. Looking fwd to it feeling normal one day,” tweeted Musk.

Despite the launch of Turkmenistan’s first communications satellite, the country is conducting a war on satellite dishes to receive the signals according to Human Rights Watch.

“Authorities in Turkmenistan are forcing residents to dismantle privately owned satellite dishes,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on April 24. “A move that unjustifiably interferes with the right to receive and impart information and ideas, this serves to further isolate people in Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, from independent sources of news and information.”

First-ever Turkmenistan satellite launches aboard SpaceX's Falcon rocket on April 27, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
First-ever Turkmenistan satellite launches aboard SpaceX’s Falcon rocket on April 27, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Just 1 week from today on May 5, SpaceX plans a pad abort test for NASA that is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil to the space station.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a NASA mission to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the April 27 launch. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Falcon 9 rocket rolls out to the pad prior to April 27, 2015 launch. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 rocket rolls out to the pad prior to April 27, 2015 launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Picks Up Launch Pace; Sets April 27 Commercial Launch and May 5 Crew Dragon Pad Abort Test

SpaceX Dragon V2 test flight vehicle set for May 5, 2015 pad abort test. Credit: SpaceX
See below SpaceX live launch webcast link[/caption]

As promised, SpaceX is picking up its launch pace in 2015 with a pair of liftoffs from the Florida space coast slated for the next week and a half. They follow closely on the heels of a quartet of successful blastoffs from Cape Canaveral, already accomplished since January.

If all goes well, a commercial satellite launch and a human spaceflight related pad abort test launch for NASA are scheduled for April 27 and May 5 respectively.

Mondays launch of a communications satellite for Thales Alenia Space takes place just 13 days after SpaceX successfully launching the Dragon CRS-6 resupply freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA on April 14.

The 13 day turnaround time will mark a new launch cadence record for SpaceX if the weather and rocket cooperate, eclipsing the 14 day turnaround record set last September.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 224 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch at approximately 6:14 p.m. EDT (2214 GMT) on April 27 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It will deliver the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

This first satellite ever for Turkmenistan will be deployed approximately 32 minutes after liftoff of the fifth Falcon 9 rocket this year.

The outlook is currently 60 percent GO for favorable weather conditions at launch time.

You can watch the launch live via a SpaceX webcast that begins about 20 minutes before launch at: spacex.com/webcast

The May 5 pad abort test for NASA is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil to the space station.

The test will simulate an emergency abort from a test stand and will also take place from the Cape’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida.

SpaceX has a four hour launch window in which to conduct the test. The test window opens at 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT) on May 5. There is a backup opportunity on May 6.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014. Credit: SpaceX.

The purpose is to test the ability of the abort system to save astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each enigne can produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety, according to a SpaceX description.

Here is a SpaceX video of SuperDraco’s being hot fire tested in Texas.

Video caption: Full functionality of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco jetpacks demonstrated with hotfire test in McGregor, TX. Credit: SpaceX

The pad abort test is being done under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA.

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. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

A second Dragon flight test follow later in the year. It 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.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as the worlds privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014 news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

There will be no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the April 27 launch. The next landing attempt is set for mid-June.

Up close view of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landing legs prior to launch on April 14, 2015 on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landing legs prior to launch on April 14, 2015 on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Prepares for Crucial Crew Dragon Capsule Pad Abort Test

SpaceX is preparing for the first of two critical abort tests for the firm’s next generation human rated Dragon V2 capsule as soon as March.

The purpose of the pair of abort tests is to demonstrate a crew escape capability to save the astronauts’ lives in case of a rocket failure, starting from the launch pad and going all the way to orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) as the world’s privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014, news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The first abort test involving the pad abort test is currently slated to take place soon from the company’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“First up is a pad abort in about a month,” said Shotwell during a media briefing last week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

SpaceX engineers have been building the pad abort test vehicle for the unmanned test for more than a year at their headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Dragon V2 builds on and significantly upgrades the technology for the initial cargo version of the Dragon which has successfully flown five operational resupply missions to the ISS.

“It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovations in that pad abort vehicle,” noted Shotwell.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014. Credit: SpaceX.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a simulated emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine can produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety, according to a SpaceX description.

Here is a SpaceX video of SuperDraco’s being hot fire tested in Texas:

Video caption: Full functionality of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco jetpacks demonstrated with hotfire test in McGregor, TX. Credit: SpaceX

For the purpose of this test, the crew Dragon will sit on top of a facsimile of the unpressurized trunk portion of the Dragon. It will not be loaded on top of a Falcon 9 rocket for the pad abort test.

The second abort test involves a high altitude abort test launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“An in-flight abort test [follows] later this year,” said Shotwell.

“The Integrated launch abort system is critically important to us. We think it gives incredible safety features for a full abort all the way through ascent.”

“It does also allow us the ultimate goal of fully propulsive landing.”

Both tests were originally scheduled for 2014 as part of the firm’s prior CCiCAP development phase contract with NASA, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told me in late 2013.

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

Last year, NASA granted SpaceX an extension into 2015 for both tests under SpaceX’s CCiCAP milestones.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during a prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Dragon V2 will launch atop a human rated Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral.

“We understand the incredible responsibility we’ve been given to carry crew. We should fly over 50 Falcon 9’s before crewed flight,” said Shotwell.

To accomplish the first manned test flight to the ISS by 2017, the US Congress must agree to fully fund the commercial crew program.

“To do this we need for Congress to approve full funding for the Commercial Crew Program,” Bolden said at last week’s JSC media briefing.

Severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights to the ISS from 2015 to 2017 – and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats aboard their Soyuz instead of employing American aerospace workers.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA