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

Boeing Commercial Space Taxi and Atlas V Launcher Move Closer to Blastoff

The next time that American astronauts launch to space from American soil it will surely be aboard one of the new commercially built “space taxis” currently under development by a trio of American aerospace firms – Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp – enabled by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Boeing has moved considerably closer towards regaining America’s lost capability to launch humans to space when the firm’s privately built CST-100 crew capsule achieved two key new milestones on the path to blastoff from Florida’s Space Coast.

The CST-100 capsule is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.

Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing

Boeing’s crew transporter will fly to space atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Boeing and ULA teams recently completed the first wind tunnel tests of a 7 percent scale model of the integrated capsule and Atlas V rocket (photo above) as well as thrust tests of the modified Centaur upper stage.

The work is being done under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, intended to make commercial human spaceflight services available for both US government and commercial customers, such as the proposed Bigelow Aerospace mini space station.

Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Since its maiden liftoff in 2002, the ULA Atlas V rocket has flawlessly launched numerous multi-billion dollar NASA planetary science missions like the Curiosity Mars rover, Juno Jupiter orbiter and New Horizons mission to Pluto as well as a plethora of top secret Air Force spy satellites.

But the two stage Atlas V has never before been used to launch humans to space – therefore necessitating rigorous testing and upgrades to qualify the entire vehicle and both stages to meet stringent human rating requirements.

“The Centaur has a long and storied past of launching the agency’s most successful spacecraft to other worlds,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s CCP manager at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Because it has never been used for human spaceflight before, these tests are critical to ensuring a smooth and safe performance for the crew members who will be riding atop the human-rated Atlas V.”

The combined scale model CST-100 capsule and complete Atlas V rocket were evaluated for two months of testing this spring inside an 11- foot diameter transonic wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

“The CST-100 and Atlas V, connected with the launch vehicle adaptor, performed exactly as expected and confirmed our expectations of how they will perform together in flight,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manager for Commercial Programs.

Testing of the Centaur stage centered on characterizing the flow of liquid oxygen from the oxygen tank through the liquid oxygen-feed duct line into the pair of RL-10 engines where the propellant is mixed with liquid hydrogen and burned to create thrust to propel the CST-100 into orbit.

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says Mulholland.

Artist's concept shows Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft separating from the first stage of its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Boeing
Artist’s concept shows Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft separating from the first stage of its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Boeing

But that date is dependent on funding from NASA and could easily be delayed by the ongoing sequester which has slashed NASA’s and all Federal budgets.

Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s flight test effort.

Boeing has leased one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility hangers (OPF-3) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the manufacturing and assembly of its CST-100 spacecraft.

Mulholland told me previously that Boeing will ‘cut metal’ soon. “Our first piece of flight design hardware will be delivered to KSC and OPF-3 around mid 2013.”

NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace the crew capability of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.

The Atlas V will also serve as the launcher for the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxi.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, US and partner astronauts have been 100% reliant on the Russians to hitch a ride to the ISS aboard the Soyuz capsules – at a price tag exceeding $60 Million per seat.

Simultaneously on a parallel track NASA is developing the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Conjunctions, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

June 4: “Send your Name to Mars” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8:30 PM

June 11: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; NJ State Museum Planetarium and Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Trenton, NJ, 730 PM.

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory  (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V  rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida.   United Launch Alliance (ULA) is now upgrading the Atlas V to launch humans aboard the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxis. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is now upgrading the Atlas V to launch humans aboard the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxis. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
The CST-100 spacecraft awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in this artist's concept. Credit: Boeing
The CST-100 spacecraft awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

SpaceX Test Fires SuperDraco Abort Engines Critical To Astronaut Launch Safety

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has test fired a prototype of its new SuperDraco engine that will be critical to saving the lives of astronauts flying aboard a manned Dragon spacecraft soaring to orbit in the event of an in-flight emergency.

The successful full-duration, full-thrust firing of the new SuperDraco engine prototype was completed at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco is a key component of the launch abort system of the Dragon spacecraft that must fire in a split second to insure crew safety during launch and the entire ascent to orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft is SpaceX’s entry into NASA’s commercial crew development program – known as CCDEV2 – that seeks to develop a commercial ‘space taxi’ to launch human crews to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The engine fired for 5 seconds during the test, which is the same length of time the engines need to burn during an actual emergency abort to safely thrust the astronauts away.

Watch the SpaceX SuperDraco Engine Test Video:

Nine months ago NASA awarded $75 million to SpaceX to design and test the Dragon’s launch abort system . The SuperDraco firing was the ninth of ten milestones that are to be completed by SpaceX by around May 2012 and that were stipulated and funded by a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“SpaceX and all our industry partners are being extremely innovative in their approaches to developing commercial transportation capabilities,” said Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango in a NASA statement. “We are happy that our investment in SpaceX was met with success in the firing of its new engine.”

Dragon will launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket, also developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX test-fires its SuperDraco engine that will eventually power the manned Dragon spacecrafts launch escape system critical for Astronaut safety during launch to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

“Eight SuperDracos will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to quickly carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive officer and chief technology officer in a statement. “Those engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.”

“Crews will have the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch because the launch abort engines are integrated into the side walls of the vehicle,” Musk said. “With eight SuperDracos, if any one engine fails the abort still can be carried out successfully.”

SuperDraco engines will power the launch escape system of SpaceX’s Dragon. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of four commercial firms working to develop a new human rated spacecraft with NASA funding. The other firms vying for a commercial crew contract are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” says Musk. “These engines will power a revolutionarylaunch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The privately developed space taxi’s will eventually revive the capability to ferry American astronauts to and from the ISS that was totally lost when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were forcibly retired before a replacement crew vehicle was ready to launch.

Because the US Congress slashed NASA’s commercial crew development funding by more than 50% -over $400 million – the first launch of a commercial space taxi is likely to be delayed several more years to about 2017. Until that time, all American astronauts must hitch a ride to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

This week the Russian manned space program suffered the latest in a string of failures when when technicians performing a crucial test mistakenly over pressurized and damaged the descent module of the next manned Soyuz vehicle set to fly to the ISS in late March, thereby forcing about a 45 day delay to the launch of the next manned Soyuz from Kazakhstan.