SpaceX is getting ready to launch its very first crew to the International Space Station (ISS), targeting May 27, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The mission is being hailed as the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight. The flight test, dubbed Demo-2 will send two astronauts to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The mission will mark the first launch of astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. In the last nine years, NASA astronauts have relied on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get to and from the International Space Station, costing the space agency $81 million per seat.
The mission will also be a significant milestone for SpaceX. The private company was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 and set out to revolutionise space travel with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Since then, SpaceX has successfully reduced the cost per launch by developing reusable orbital-class launch vehicles. In 2014, NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing as the two companies that will be funded to develop systems to transport U.S. crews to and from the ISS. Since then, SpaceX has carried out several tests on its Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft.
The Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and crew to orbiting destinations. In its first iteration, Dragon 1 was developed and used as a cargo vessel, to transport science experiments and supplies to the ISS. After flying multiple successful missions, SpaceX developed its successor, the Dragon 2. This reusable spacecraft comes in two variations: The Cargo Dragon, which is an updated version of the Dragon 1, and the Crew Dragon, which is able to carry up to seven astronauts into orbit. The Crew Dragon will be the spacecraft used for the crewed mission to the ISS in May 2020.
The Crew Dragon had its first orbital flight test, Demo-1, in March last year. In this uncrewed mission, the spacecraft autonomously docked with the International Space Station and later safely returned by splashing down into the ocean. However, the Crew Dragon does not have a flawless history. In April 2019, about a month after the successful Demo-1 mission, the Crew Dragon was destroyed during a static fire engine test. An investigation by SpaceX found that during the ignition of the spacecraft’s eight SuperDraco thrusters, a leaking component allowed liquid oxidiser (nitrogen tetroxide) to enter high-pressure helium tubes. This resulted in a structural failure sufficient to cause an explosion.
Nevertheless, SpaceX rectified the issues and conducted an in-flight abort test in January 2020 to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
This brings us to the situation today. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, NASA and SpaceX remain on track to launch their important Demo-2 mission. Employees at all of NASA’s centres are already being asked to work from home except for those who are mission essential, and SpaceX employees have been told to stay home if they feel sick. In its press call for the Demo-2 mission, NASA stated that it is “proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves” and that it continues to follow guidance by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. Protocols are already in place to ensure the astronauts are in peak health before they fly. Even before the pandemic began, NASA required all astronauts to undergo a two-week quarantine to ensure they don’t carry any illnesses with them into space.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will take part in the mission, continue to be monitored and have been training for the launch in a SpaceX flight simulator. Michael Hess, Manager of Operations Integration for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said: “The simulations were a great opportunity to practice procedures and to coordinate decision-making for the mission management team, especially with respect to weather.” He added: “What’s happening in commercial crew is a big deal. It will be the first time to launch astronauts from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, and it will be the first time since STS-1 that we will launch astronauts in a new spacecraft.”
Due to current social distancing guidelines, it is expected that fewer visitors than usual will be allowed to witness the launch of Demo-2. The Crew Dragon is scheduled to lift off at 4.32 pm EDT on 27 May, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida.