NASA’s stature has slipped in recent years, as illustrated by the US space agency’s reliance on the Russian-made Soyuz rockets. But NASA could this weekend take one giant leap in expanding its space exploration operations. For NASA has invited the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX to launch a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) – the first unmanned exercise for the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
The seven-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will fly to the ISS, dock with the orbiting station, and remain attached for a week.
We need to make sure the Crew Dragon can safely go rendezvous and dock with the space station
The SpaceX Crew Dragon will then detach and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA last week conducted a full Flight Readiness Review test of the Crew Dragon’s systems and cleared the Demo-1 mission to proceed.
“We need to make sure the Crew Dragon can safely go rendezvous and dock with the space station, and undock safely, and not pose a hazard to the International Space Station,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said this week.
SpaceX: Elon Musk will test his Crew Dragon module on March 2
SpaceX: The Crew Dragon has been cleared to proceed with the Demo-1 mission
Although some had recently voiced concerns about the safety of SpaceX’s software NASA remains sanguine as to the mission’s success.
Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA Human Exploration and Operations said: “I don’t think it’ll be a problem once we go through the details of why it is safe, and we can explain to them the details of why we are moving forward.”
If successful, the SpaceX flight will mark the first time a commercially built spacecraft design for humans crew will reach the ISS.
In the long run, NASA will no longer have to rely on the costly rocket launches of its Russian counterpart Roscosmos.
Each seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket costs NASA up to £62million ($82million) per trip.
Since NASA ended the Space Shuttle Programme in 2011, the US space agency has had to hire seats onboard Russian rockets to man the ISS.
SpaceX will send up a dummy crew member in the seven-person vehicle.
But unlike last year’s Tesla Roadster stunt, this weekend’s dummy will most likely be retrievable.
SpaceX: The Crew Dragon launch will reassert the US’ dominance
SpaceX: Crew Dragon will have a crew of four
This weekend’s Demo-1 mission is the first of two upcoming qualifying flights.
A second flight, tentatively scheduled for somewhere between April and June, will test the SuperDraco launch abort system.
And Demo-2, scheduled for July, will be the first crewed mission to the ISS launched by the US since the Space Shuttle ended service in eight years ago.
The Demo-2 mission is currently expected in July.
Of course, SpaceX is not the only private company currently blasting vehicles into space.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is expected to launch this April in its first un-crewed test to the ISS.
However, sending a crew to the ISS will fall short of representing a full recovery of gate United States’ space capabilities.
The Falcon 9 alone is not capable of the same breadth of missions as the Space Shuttle, even if its reusability puts it in an entirely different league.
But the ability to put people in orbit eight long years after the Space Shuttle retired is an important step back towards manned exploration of the Solar System, whether that means the Moon, Mars and beyond.
SpaceX: Crew Dragon will launch this Saturday
SpaceX launch: These astronauts will fly SpaceX’s and Boeing’s manned modules