NASA formally certifies SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for “operational” astronaut flights

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft and its Falcon 9 rocket inside SpaceX’s hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

NASA officials gave approval Tuesday for SpaceX to begin regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station with the launch of four astronauts set for Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, signaling a transition from development to operations for the human-rated Dragon spacecraft.

Mission managers completed a two-day Flight Readiness Review Tuesday and issued a preliminary go-ahead for the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft Saturday at 7:49 p.m. EST (0049 GMT Sunday) with NASA commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, a veteran Japanese space flier.

Hopkins and his crewmates are setting off on a six-month mission aboard the space station, where they will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who launched last month on a Russian Soyuz capsule.

“This is a big day, but the next few days are going to be big days too, and we’re going to have to be stepping carefully through our final readiness toward flight,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate. “This thorough review today and everyone’s approval to move forward was a great first step toward flight.”

The review doubled as a major certification milestone for the Crew Dragon program. NASA officials signed off on the SpaceX’s crew capsule’s readiness for a series of crew rotation flights to the International Space Station, capping a decade of design, development, and testing of the Crew Dragon, its Falcon 9 launcher, and ground systems to support the program.

“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”

“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, CEO, and chief engineer. “I could not be more proud of everyone at SpaceX and all of our suppliers who worked incredibly hard to develop, test, and fly the first commercial human spaceflight system in history to be certified by NASA.”

NASA officials signed off on the Human Rating Certification Plan for SpaceX on Tuesday after reviewing data from numerous ground tests, demonstrations of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system, an unpiloted test flight to the space station in March 2019, and the Crew Dragon’s first mission with astronauts earlier this year.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken successfully launched in a Crew Dragon to the space station in May, the first flight of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Hurley and Behnken’s test flight concluded Aug. 2 with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX’s crew transportation system is the first to be certified by NASA for regular astronaut flights since the space shuttle nearly 40 years ago, the space agency said. It’s the first commercial crew vehicle NASA has ever certified for Earth orbit missions.

“This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the moon, travel to Mars, and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary,” Musk said in a statement.

SpaceX said it performed more than 700 tests of the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines, more than 500 joint soft-capture tests to validate the Crew Dragon’s docking system design, and about 8 million hours of hardware in the loop software testing. The company said it also conducted nearly 100 tests of the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, in addition to 20 successful cargo resupply missions to the space station and more than 40 launches of the latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Japanese space flier Soichi Noguchi pose with their Crew Dragon spacecraft Monday night as the Falcon 9 rocket rolled out to pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA turned to the private sector to take over crew and cargo transportation services for the space station after the end of the space shuttle program. SpaceX commenced operational cargo delivery services to the station in 2012, and Northrop Grumman started flying its Cygnus supply ship to the orbiting outpost in 2013.

NASA has signed contracts with SpaceX worth more than $3.1 billion to develop, test, certify, and fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That money includes payments to SpaceX for development milestones and six operational crew rotation flights to the space station, the first of which is the Crew-1 mission scheduled for liftoff Saturday.

The space agency also has brokered a series of agreements with Boeing valued at more than $5 billion for similar work on the Starliner crew capsule, which has yet to fly with astronauts on-board. Boeing continues working through software issues encountered an unpiloted test flight of its Starliner capsule last year.

Another Starliner test flight without astronauts is currently scheduled for launch in the first three months of 2021, followed by a demonstration mission with a three-person crew later next year, according to Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

SpaceX and Boeing combined have received around $5 billion from NASA for development of the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, and their associated launch and ground systems. The rest of the contract money goes toward crew transportation services after certification for regular rotation flights to the space station.

NASA guaranteed SpaceX and Boeing each a minimum of six crew rotation missions to the space station. The commercial crew program is ending NASA’s sole reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for crew access to the station.

Lueders told reporters Tuesday that the formal certification of SpaceX for crew transportation services will not change the way NASA manages risk and safety for human spaceflight missions.

“Even though we’re certified, I don’t treat this flight any differently than I would any other flight,” Lueders said. “We’re going to methodically make sure that we’re ready to go launch, and then in flight, we’ll look at how the vehicle is performing. And then when we return, we’ll look at the post-flight data for each phase of flight, and then look at anything we can do better, and then move forward to Crew-2.”

During the Flight Readiness Review on Monday and Tuesday, NASA officials evaluated SpaceX’s compliance with the requirements the agency began establishing for the commercial crew program nearly 10 years ago.

“People tend to think it’s just the spacecraft, but it’s the spacecraft, it’s the launch vehicle, it’s all the processing on the ground, it’s how you do your mission operations,” Lueders said. “All of that will safely fly our crew up to the International Space Station and back, and then recovery.”

Lueders said the certification achievement is where “NASA says to SpaceX: ‘You have shown us that you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements … You’ve shown us the data, and we trust you to do that.'”

But SpaceX and NASA engineers will still have to be “vigilant” to not become complacent as the program moves into an operational phase, Lueders said.

NASA still has more certification work to complete before formally clearing SpaceX to fly astronauts with reused rockets and spacecraft. And NASA will review any major upgrades to the Falcon 9 or Crew Dragon to ensure the changes still meet the agency’s safety requirements, Stich said.

Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

“Today, we are taking another big leap in this transformation in how we do human spaceflight,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “What we’re talking about here is the commercialization of space, where NASA is one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit.

“What we’re doing is we’re transitioning from a test flight to operational flights,” Bridenstine said Sunday. “Make no mistake, every flight is a test flight when it comes to space travel, but it’s also true that we need to routinely be able to go the International Space Station.”

With the start of commercial service, the Crew-1 launch Saturday will be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for ensuring public safety during commercial launch operations by U.S. companies. In previous government-led missions, NASA was charged with responsibility for public safety.

Stich said Tuesday that the Crew-1 astronauts are scheduled to return to Earth in April to cap a six-month expedition on the space station. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is certified for missions lasting up to 210 days.

A few weeks before the Crew-1 mission ends, SpaceX will launch a Crew Dragon with four fresh space station residents. That mission, known as Crew-2, is tentatively scheduled for launch March 30, according to Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station program manager.

The Crew-2 mission will use the same reusable Falcon 9 booster set for launch Saturday with the Crew-1 astronauts. The booster will come back to Earth for a landing on SpaceX’s offshore drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean a few minutes after liftoff.

The Crew Dragon “Endeavour” spacecraft flown on the test flight earlier this year with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken is now being refurbished for another launch on the Crew-2 mission.

SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission is likely to launch to the space station in the late summer or early fall of 2021, Montalbano said Tuesday. Some time late next year, NASA hopes Boeing is ready to launch its first regular crew rotation flight to the space station.

SpaceX is also planning to launch a short-duration, roughly 10-day Crew Dragon flight to the space station as soon as next October with four private astronauts. That mission is being arranged by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company with plans to eventually construct a commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

But the Crew-1 mission is next on SpaceX’s schedule.

The Crew-1 mission will mark the first time a capsule has flown to orbit with four people, and it will be the longest spaceflight by a human-rated U.S. crew transportation vehicle, breaking the 84-day record set by an Apollo spacecraft on a mission to the Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974.

Stich said Tuesday managers have cleared a concern with the Falcon 9 rocket’s Merlin engines that cropped up during a SpaceX launch attempt last month on a mission with a GPS navigation satellite. SpaceX discovered hardened residue left over from engine manufacturing blocked a narrow vent passages inside gas generators on some Merlin engines in SpaceX’s fleet.

SpaceX replaced a component on one of the nine Merlin engines on the first stage of the Crew-1 mission’s Falcon 9 rocket, and teams swapped out another engine entirely. SpaceX also replaced two engines on the Falcon 9 rocket for the GPS mission, which successfully launched Nov. 5.

Ground crew rolled the Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft to pad 39A late Monday in preparation for a test-firing of the booster’s Merlin engines Tuesday night. But SpaceX decided to replace a purge valve on the Falcon 9’s second stage, delaying the test-firing until Wednesday.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight programs, said Tuesday he did not expect the one-day delay for the hotfire test to affect the planned launch Saturday.

After the test-firing Wednesday, Hopkins and his crewmates will put on their white SpaceX-made pressure suits and ride to pad 39A inside Tesla Model X automobiles Thursday. The astronauts will board their Crew Dragon spaceship to rehearse the steps they will take on launch day.

A final Launch Readiness Review is also on tap Thursday, where mission managers will receive briefings on the status of launch preps and the weather forecast for Saturday evening.

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