SpaceX crew dragon gets tentative NASA target for first astronaut launch


New information from NASA and the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms that SpaceX is currently targeting – at least very provisionally – Crew Dragon's first launch with astronauts onboard before November 15, 2019.

SpaceX is currently in the midst of a complex investigation of high-risk anomalies after its flight-approved Crew Dragon DM-1 capsule suffered a catastrophic failure on April 20. This research is far from complete due to the fact that the interests of NASA and the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) are equally intertwined in the work involved. Given the potential consequences of a similar crash occurring with astronauts (public or private) on board, NASA is unlikely to accept anything less than an unsatisfactory analysis and resolution of failures, including all necessary changes in the design of the Dragon Command, not matter how comprehensive.

As Chris Gerbhardt of notes, the dates related to the Dragon Crew included in the NASA Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) document are extremely tentative They are really there just to serve as placeholders for the long-term planning of the International Space Station, already a necessarily uncertain effort. However, NASA's planning date of November 15, 2019 for the Crew Dragon DM-2 (the first manned test flight) was probably approved by SpaceX – if not provided directly by the company – before entering a Official FPIP.

In other words, November 15th is probably a real target, but it should be treated as an absolutely positive launch date from the first to the first Crew Dragon astronaut mission on the ISS. At the end of March (after the successful completion of DM-1, but before the capsule's ground failure), anonymous sources from the Russian space industry confirmed that NASA's DM-2 planning date was July 25 at the same time indicating that the space agency was already preparing for delays that could push DM-2 until November 2019.

Specifically, an anonymous Roscosmos source told Russian broadcaster TASS that "the [DM-2] The Crew Dragon release is due to be postponed until November. " Given that this delay was rumored – albeit almost officially – and reported in almost a month before The Crew Dragon C201 capsule exploded catastrophically during the tests but did not exactly inspire confidence in a November 2014 DM-2 planning date, officially launched by NASA another three months later.

Crew Dragon stumbles, but optimism continues

As they say, things were going perfectly to the point of not being. Despite 2 to 3 months of work at NASA and delays related to the review, SpaceX's first Crew Dragon aircraft performed flawlessly during the orbital encounter, docking, departure and re-entry, as NASA and of SpaceX were joking about their partial disbelief. NASA's long post-mission review has effectively concluded the same, although there ever space for improvement.

Due to these DM-1 delays mentioned above (approximately from early January to early March), the assembly and integration of the DM-2 Crew Dragon was delayed to preserve access should DM-1 reveal flaws or necessary changes. Things did not go as planned, but late integration turned out to be beneficial, preserving access to most of Dragon 2's critical subsystems without requiring further disassembly before any anomaly-related changes are implemented.

A NASA update of May 2019 indicated that SpaceX's DM-2 Crew Dragon (probably the previously designated vehicle for the subsequent USCV-1 mission) is in the final stages of assembly. Once the anomaly investigation is complete and the DM-2 spacecraft is upgraded with any necessary modifications, SpaceX will likely require an additional 4 months of work to achieve flight readiness. (NASA)

By a late May upgrade from CCP manager Kathy Lueders, SpaceX has effectively changed its Crew Dragon hardware assignments into one to account for the loss of the DM-1's C201 capsule. The vehicle previously assigned to DM-2 was transferred to a critical flight abortion test (IFA), previously intended to use the proven C201. By graphics provided during Lueders presentation, SpaceX's replacement DM-2 capsule (probably the capsule previously assigned to the next mission, Crew-1) is in a kind of standby pattern to allow modifications that may be necessary after failure of the DM-1 investigation concludes.

In an earlier December 2018 upgrade from Lueders, SpaceX's original DM-2 spacecraft (now assigned to IFA) was fully assembled, shipped to Pad 39A and ready to launch in June 2019. Counting the delays of the DM- 1, this spacecraft would probably be ready for the abortion test in July or August, which matches the post-anomaly indications that the IFA is scheduled for no earlier than fall (September 2019)

Illuminated by Earth's arm, the arrival of the DM-1 Dragon crew to the ISS was captured by astronaut Anne McClain on March 3. (NASA / Anne McClain)

All in all, a pragmatic analysis suggests that Crew Dragons Release of DM-2 probably do not happen before the first quarter of 2020, although miracles (and nightmares) are certainly possible. For now, all that matters to SpaceX is to close the C201's fault investigation as quickly and accurately as possible. Only after the company has publicly announced the results of this investigation, any IFA or DM-2 release date should be taken with anything less than a full salt content.

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