How NASA and SpaceX are preparing for the launch of their astronauts in the commerical human spaceflight mission?

American astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will be launched from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


Editor's Note: The NASA-SpaceX joint human spaceflight was scheduled for liftoff on Thursday, 28 May, 2.00 am IST (Wednesday, 27 May at 4.32 pm EDT) from the Launch Complex 39A from the Kenndy Space Centre, Florida. However, due to bad weather conditions, they had to cancel the launch. It has now been re-scheduled for 31 May, 12.52 AM IST.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and private aerospace company SpaceX are getting ready to launch astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, almost 10 years (2011) after the last Space Shuttle Program lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre, from American soil.

The launch is supposed to take place on Wednesday, 27 May 4.32 pm EDT, or Thursday, 28 May 2.02 am IST from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

 How NASA and SpaceX are preparing for the launch of their astronauts in the commerical human spaceflight mission?

The Falcon 9 rocket getting ready for lift-off. image credit: SpaceX/Flickr

But it is not going to be easy, and there will be risks.

Whether it is the Coronavirus pandemic or the skeleton crew that will be working on the ground on the day of the launch; or the fact that it is the maiden voyage of the Dragon crew capsule.

Human spaceflight is returning to America! 🇺🇸🚀

“My heart is sitting right here (motioning to the throat), and I think it’s going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and Chief Operating Officer, in a press conference, reported Spaceflight. “But between now and then, there’s still work to do.”

The storied US Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle program was a reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft system that was operated from 1981 to 2011. Its official program name was Space Transportation System (STS). It has launched manned satellites and interplanetary probes, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, and helped in the construction and servicing of the International Space Station. However, the program was now without its failures. With two major, deadly disasters, the program was finally shut down forever.

On 28 January 1986, the STS-51-L disintegrated 73 seconds after its launch, due to equipment failure and killed seven astronauts on board. Again, on 1 February 2003, a spacecraft disintegrated during re-entry and killed all seven of the STS-107 crew. Hurley, the spacecraft commander for SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule, had served as pilot on the last shuttle mission.

A commercial space program

After the Space Shuttle debacle, NASA used Russia's Soyuz rockets to get their astronauts to the ISS. This SpaceX mission is part of the Commercial Crew Mission, where NASA gets private companies to collaborate with them in order to develop and operate spacecraft. The program began in 2010. Boeing and SpaceX are the two companies working on spacecraft that can deliver crew members to the International Space Station (ISS).

Boeing has had a lot of trouble in developing a safe and functional crew capsule that can take NASA astronauts to the ISS. Its last flight test was a massive failure and NASA has even opened an investigation into this disastrous test. Boeing Co’s CST-100 Starliner astronaut capsule had a successful launch of its first unmanned test mission, but an automated timer error prevented the spacecraft from attaining the correct orbit for it to rendezvous and dock with the space station. It is supposed to have another test flight, later this year

Since 2011 (when SpaceX joined the program), NASA has given the Elon Musk-owned company funds to the tune of $3.1 billion to develop, test, and fly the Dragon spacecraft reported CNBC. SpaceX has also supplemented its research with its own funding, however no official figures have been made available.

“The investments that we have made into SpaceX and the investment SpaceX has made in itself have really resulted in, I think, something that is going to be very beneficial, not just for human space exploration, but beneficial for the economy,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The Dragon will be launched atop the Falcon 9 rocket to around 17,000 mph into low earth orbit, and in 24 hours, it will be in the right position to automatically dock with the ISS. While the crew capsule is designed to do this without the astronauts overseeing it, the docking will be monitored, and if anything were to go awry, the crew would be able to take control of it.

Demo 1

On 2 March 2019, SpaceX's Dragon capsule was launched, and on 8 March 2019, it completed its first unmanned flight test by docking to the ISS and returning back to Earth after a five-day mission. This mission was called Demo-1. This was the first spacecraft that was built, operated and launched by a private American company and was also the first crew capsule that docked at the ISS on its own. With the success of this mission, the US was one step closer to re-starting its own human spaceflight program.

Demo 2

After a successful first trial mission, the upcoming mission to the ISS has been termed Demo-2. The spacecraft is supposed to be able to carry around seven passengers, but for its first test run, only two astronauts will be in the capsule.

If all goes well with this mission, NASA will approve SpaceX to carry other astronauts to the ISS, along with the commercial re-supply runs it has been making since 2008. This will reduce NASA's dependence on the Soyuz program and will be more cost-effective in the long run as well. It will also take them another step further to completing the Artemis mission, and the next step is humans on Mars.

The US-built Falcon 9 rocket

SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a partially-reusable two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle. Its first stage is capable of re-entering the atmosphere and landing vertically after separating from the second stage, which is why it is partially re-usable. SpaceX successfully landed its first stage during its 20th flight in December 2015. The second stage of the rocket has a single engine that can deliver its payload to whichever orbit is required. The engine can be restarted multiple times to deliver multiple payloads into different orbits.

A two-stage-to-orbit or two-stage rocket launch vehicle is a spacecraft in which two distinct stages provide propulsion consecutively in order to achieve orbital velocity.

Quarantining

As standard procedure dictates, before the actual launch, the astronauts will go into quarantine two weeks prior. This will be made more stringent due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world. Employees at NASA and SpaceX have, on occasion, had to quarantine themselves as there were positive cases found.

Shotwell, reported Spaceflight, has outlined some of the precautions that they were taking during the press conference, "We've had Bob and Doug here for training and we are ensuring that only essential personnel are near them. They're wearing masks and gloves. We're cleaning the training facility twice daily."

NASA is also ensuring that the crew, working with the astronauts during their flight simulations, are being taken care of. "We're taking temperatures. We're wearing masks in public areas. We are social distancing as well. We've got at least half of our engineering staff working from home," Shotwell said.

NASA astronauts during a pre-flight test in SpaceX Crew Dragon. Image credit: Twitter

NASA astronauts during a pre-flight test in SpaceX Crew Dragon. Image credit: Twitter

"Obviously with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are taking extra precautions for all the teams supporting the launch and all the phases of flight," said Steve Stich, deputy manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, reported Al Jazeera. "So in the various control rooms, we've laid out those rooms to have at least two metres between anybody on a console looking at displays."

Hurley, in an interview with CBS News, spoke about the measures he and his co-passenger are taking (like following the rules set out by NASA and their flight surgeons) as well as those undertaken by NASA.

Hurley said, "We're kind of already in a quarantine bubble that includes the two of us and of course, by extension, our immediate families as well. We'll be leading up to launch kind of with similar precautions. It's not a lot different than what we would do for a crew that was going to launch on a Soyuz out of Baikonur (Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan), or what we did back when we launched on space shuttles." When they fly out to Florida, they will use "NASA transportation to try to minimize our exposure".

ISS is short-staffed

The space station is currently being manned by one American astronaut — Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts — Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Usually, the orbiting station is staffed with three to six people but it can comfortably accommodate around nine astronauts. However, in 2009, the ISS was able to support 13 crew members at a given time.

If all goes well, Hurley and Behnken's ride to the ISS will mean that the occupants will have more help to conduct their research and experiments in zero gravity. Reuters reported that the astronauts' planned mission has been extended from one to now lasting anywhere between one to four-month. It will also mean that they will have more time to conduct a spacewalk — which is exciting — to change the batteries of the ISS.

The Dragon capsule being prepped in a NASA site before its launch on 27 May. Image credit: Twitter

The Dragon capsule being prepped in a NASA site before its launch on 27 May. Image credit: Twitter

"We currently support the station with the bare minimum," said Bridenstine. "Without the presence of Behnken and Hurley, we otherwise would likely defer such an operation until additional NASA crew members are available."

NASA to its spectators

NASA is launching their own astronauts from American soil after a gap of 11 years, and if this were a normal year, it would've been a big moment for the country. Something akin to the excitement people had shown during the initial Apollo mission phase.

But this is not a normal year and these are not normal situations, and NASA has asked all potential spectators to adhere to the lockdown rules set out by the US government.

Futurism reported that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “We are very excited about launching a commercial crew. We are asking people to join us in this launch but to do so from home. We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center.”

He also said that people who break this rule and crowd the beach, or the area near the centre will have to deal with the local authorities. Space.com reported that the Space Centre will be closed to the public as well.

Also Read: 

Looking at the journey of how NASA and its astronauts became one of SpaceX’s biggest customers

What do we know spacex’s astronaut suits and the vehicle they use to travel to the launchpad; launch on Sunday, 31 May, 12.52 am IST

 


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