Dragon crew names their spacecraft Endeavour; complete first manual flight test

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT) on May 31 with downlink video.

Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Hours after arriving in orbit, Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken completed their first manual flight test using touchscreen controls on the SpaceX’s new crew capsule, and revealed “Endeavour” as the name of their ship.

The astronauts entered Earth orbit around nine minutes after lifting off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday, marking the first human spaceflight to originate from the Florida spaceport since the final space shuttle mission in July 2011.

The crew quickly got to work accomplishing key objectives of the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s first piloted test flight. They took off their SpaceX-made pressure suits and changed into more comfortable clothing, then Hurley began testing his ability to provide manual inputs to the capsule’s flight control system, which is normally designed to autonomously control the spacecraft’s movements.

Using touchscreen controls, Hurley prepared commands that would have changed the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s attitude, or orientation, in space. He stopped short of actually sending the commands to the Dragon flight computer.

“You’re more of a monitor of all the systems, and you’re not using all your brainpower to actually fly the vehicle,” Hurley said before launch. “That being said, the vehicle has manual capability in several phases, and we will certainly test that out because it’s just prudent to have an automated vehicle that has a backup capability manually in order to do what you need to do to complete the mission.

“Hopefully, it will make our job easier,” Hurley said. “It’s similar to what our Russian counterparts fly. The Soyuz is a mostly automated vehicle, but it does have manual backup capability as well, and it’s the way vehicles are being developed for the future. I think it’s the right way to fly vehicles in space, so hopefully that’ll be the answer that we come back with.”

Hurley, assisted by co-pilot Behnken, will perform a second manual flight test in close proximity with the space station less than an hour before its scheduled docking Sunday.

The touchscreen displays use similar technology as cars made by Tesla. SpaceX and Tesla were both founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Hurley and Behnken were involved in some of SpaceX’s design decisions involving the Crew Dragon spacecraft, acting as consultants. Hurley is a veteran Marine Corps test pilot, and Behnken was an Air Force flight test engineer before his selection as an astronaut.

“Ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface,” Hurley said. “Of course, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different. But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to kind of refine the way that you interface with a touchscreen and the way that your touch is actually registered on the displays in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, and potentially putting in a wrong input, those kinds of things.”

The SpaceX flight suits, which the astronauts wear during launch, docking, undocking and re-entry, have gloves specially designed to function with the touchscreens.

“I think it was challenging for us, and for them at first, to work through all those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint, with a touchscreen, it flies very well” Hurley said. “You kind of interface with the vehicle such that the cameras are displayed on that same display, so you’re seeing the docking target, for example, when you’re maneuvering close to space station right in the same exact place you’re looking to fly the vehicle.

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting an input in with the touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because … when you’re flying an airplane, for example, if I push the stick forward, it’s going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with at touchscreen, if that makes sense. So it’s a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”

The space shuttle’s cockpit had numerous switches controlling a boggling number of systems, computers, pumps, circuits, heaters, valves, rockets and other components. There were also gauges and indicators telling astronauts the status of key spacecraft systems.

And the shuttle commander and pilot had control sticks to manually guide the spacecraft on landing. The astronauts could even take manual control during launch or re-entry in the event of a guidance failure.

Hurley was pilot on two space shuttle missions, including the last shuttle flight in 2011.

The Crew Dragon is designed to by fully autonomous, but there are a few opportunities for the astronauts to manually override the autopilot. The crew can dock the capsule with the space station, and there are physical buttons to de-orbit the spacecraft, control the ship’s fire suppression system, and deploy parachutes at the end of the mission. All those buttons would only be used if the automatic systems run into trouble.

A view of the few buttons on the Crew Dragon control panel. Many of the push buttons would be used during in-flight emergencies. Credit: SpaceX

In response to a question from Spaceflight Now, Behnken said the Crew Dragon’s touchscreen flying interface — often compared to a video game or a smartphone — was specifically developed for manual flying in the vicinity of the space station.

“When we evaluated the touchscreen interface, we really did focus on the task at hand, and trying to get a good performance for that specific task,” Behnken said. “I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is to not switch to a touchscreen necessarily, but for the task that we have, and the capability to kind of keep ourselves safe flying close to the International Space Station, the touchscreen is going to provide that capability just fine.

“It just might not the same thing you’d want to use if you were suited up and trying to fly an entry or an ascent, for example, like we were trying to do with the space shuttle.”

Hurley and Behnken announced after Saturday’s launch they have named their crew capsule “Endeavour” after the retired NASA space shuttle. The spacecraft is the third crew vehicle in the U.S. space program to be named Endeavour, after the Apollo 15 command module and shuttle orbiter.

“Without further ado, we would like to welcome you aboard capsule Endeavour,” Hurley said. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons — one because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX and the United States have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011.

“The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I,” Hurley continued. “We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much for us to carry on that name.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.