It’s official: the first uncrewed flight of SpaceX’s new passenger capsule, the Crew Dragon, is set to launch on March 2nd out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Both NASA and SpaceX agreed to move forward with the flight today after doing a full day of reviews, determining that the vehicle was ready to see space and travel to the International Space Station. If the capsule successfully makes it to orbit, SpaceX will be one crucial step closer to putting the first humans on board its spacecraft.
This flight, called Demonstration Mission-1, or DM-1, is a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard private vehicles. Since the Shuttle program ended, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from low Earth orbit — an expensive arrangement that limited the types of missions NASA could run. But soon, US astronauts could be launching on US-made vehicles once again, as NASA did during the Space Shuttle era.
For the program, both SpaceX and rival company Boeing, have been developing new capsules to transport NASA astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. NASA wants the two companies to send these vehicles to space first, empty, before putting people on board. Boeing’s vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, is set to fly uncrewed for the first time this April. But SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been at Cape Canaveral since December, ready to fly. SpaceX even tested out the engines on the Falcon 9 rocket it plans to use to carry the capsule to orbit. The company just needed NASA’s approval to make it happen.
SpaceX is just a week away from the big flight
NASA tentatively set the March 2nd date a few weeks ago, and now that the okay has been given, SpaceX is just a week away from the big flight. The capsule is set to fly at 2:48AM ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — an early morning launch time dictated by the International Space Station’s position in orbit. If the Crew Dragon gets off the ground then, it’ll stay in orbit until early morning on Sunday and then attempt to automatically dock with the space station. It will then remain at the ISS for a week before detaching early Friday morning and returning to Earth to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the first Crew Dragon capsule on board
The flight is a short one compared to the months-long missions that a crewed spacecraft might be expected to complete. But it will hopefully provide both NASA and SpaceX with critical data about how the Crew Dragon holds up in space — and whether or not it is ready to carry passengers. “This vehicle, inside, has a lot of instrumentation,” Kathy Lueders, said during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center today. “We’re getting a lot of imagery of the vehicle as it’s coming back.” The capsule will be weighted similarly to how a Crew Dragon will be when it has astronauts on board, and it will also be carrying a test dummy, suited up in one of SpaceX’s custom flight suits.
Representatives for NASA stressed that they are still taking this test very seriously, even though it’s short. The Crew Dragon will be arriving at the International Space Station, which currently has three people on board, and NASA wants to make sure those crew members aren’t in any danger when the capsule gets there. “It’s a test flight, but it’s more than a test flight,” Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s human spaceflight program, said during a press conference. “It’s a mission to the International space Station.”
“it’s more than a test flight.”
In fact, NASA’s international partner Roscosmos expressed some concern about the Crew Dragon’s software that it uses when it approaches the International Space Station. However, Gerstenmaier says he plans to follow up with Roscosmos this week to make sure they are on board with the procedure. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem once we go through the details of why it’s safe, and we can explain to them the details of why we’re moving forward,” he said.
However, Gerstenmaier noted that the flight does still carry some risk, as this will be the first launch of this particular vehicle. “I fully expect we’re going to learn something on this flight,” he said. “I guarantee everything will not work exactly right, and that’s cool. That’s exactly what we want to do.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon inside the company’s hangar at Cape Canaveral
DM-1 will also provide NASA and SpaceX with the opportunity to evaluate some systems on Crew Dragon that are still not quite ready yet to support passenger flights. One of these is the capsule’s parachutes, which are used to lower the capsule gently into the water when it returns from space. SpaceX says it has done 17 tests on the parachute systems so far, but NASA is still in the process of certifying the hardware for future crewed missions.
If DM-1 doesn’t happen on March 2nd, NASA has the option to fly either on March 5th, the 8th, or the 9th. Those days work best, as it will allow Crew Dragon to return to Earth during the daytime, giving NASA a better view of the parachutes. If DM-1 is somehow delayed past the 9th, then it will have to wait a little bit longer as there is an upcoming Russian Soyuz mission that will take precedence — one that is carrying up a new crew.
“I will tell you, I’m ready to fly now.”
After this test flight is complete, SpaceX is then set to do another flight test with the Crew Dragon in April, one that will try out the vehicle’s emergency abort system. This failsafe feature is meant to be used in case something goes drastically wrong with the rocket during flight and the Crew Dragon needs to get to safety. During the test, thrusters embedded in the hull of the Crew Dragon will fire, carrying the capsule away from the rocket. It’s a procedure similar to the emergency abort system aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which saved two astronauts during a botched flight in October.
If that test goes well, it may finally be time for the first crew to board the Crew Dragon. When that crewed flight will occur is still undecided — a recent report from Reuters noted that there are still a lot of technical items that NASA needs to review first before the agency will let astronauts fly on either Boeing or SpaceX’s vehicles. And NASA admitted today that the Crew Dragon, in its current form, is not ready yet for crewed missions.
But the uncrewed flight test will at least pave the way for that first crewed flight to happen. “I will tell you, I’m ready to fly now,” Lueders said.